Tehran on the way?
Amani Maged asks whether Egyptian-Iranian relations will resume
At a time when the US is signalling that it could cut off aid to Egypt, there are signs of a dramatic change in the relationship between Egypt and Iran. After decades of diplomatic, economic and cultural rupture, it looks like the two countries will resume ties or, at least, take serious steps towards this end.
Modern Egyptian-Iranian relations officially date to the 1928 friendship agreement between the two countries. The friendship was subsequently sealed by a marriage between the two royal houses when Princess Fawzia, sister of King Farouk I, wed the son of the Iranian Shah Mohamed Riza Pahlavi. Relations between the two countries were severed following the victory of Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979, when Cairo granted the deposed shah asylum but also as a response to Egypt's signing of the Camp David accords.
Soon after the Egyptian revolution last year, Egypt and Iran exchanged expressions of goodwill and a desire to resume relations and strengthen them in a manner that would serve their mutual interests and the causes of the Islamic world. Iranian officials, at all levels, were particularly keen and showed a willingness to be very flexible. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that Tehran was prepared to resume relations immediately and unconditionally. Similarly, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said that his country was ready to resume relations on the very same day that Egypt agreed to a resumption.
Ambassador Mujtaba Amani, who heads the Iranian affairs mission in Cairo, described Egypt and Iran as "two eyes" -- both see most issues in the same way, however, while at the official level neither sees the other. At the popular level they are very alike because both peoples belong to very ancient cultures and civilisations.
However, this month, the newly elected Egyptian parliament has begun to move on the question of reviving our relations with Iran. The recently formed parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee observed that the former regime misused the Iranian card and stressed the need to develop a clear perception on the relationship between the two countries.
Moreover, even if the resumption of diplomatic relations has yet to be signed and sealed, mutual economic relations have begun to stir after more than 30 years of stagnation. Egypt may soon expect an influx of some $5 billion in the form of investments in industrial and commercial projects. In the next few days, Cairo will be receiving a delegation of Iranian entrepreneurs for talks on ways to promote cooperation in the private sector. At the same time, the Ministry of Aviation is studying the possibility of opening a direct flight between Cairo and Tehran and making Cairo Airport a transit point for Iranian passengers on their way to the US, Africa and Asia.
El-Sayed El-Uqeili, director of the Arab Company for Industry and Investment and general representative in the Middle East for the Iran Garment Holding Company, an umbrella firm for major Iranian companies, said that the relevant ministers from both sides agreed that Egypt would allow an initial $5 million in investments in Egypt and that this was the first time Iranian investors were given approval to enter Egypt. He added that the diverse prospective investments could create no less than 6,000 jobs in the first year and that it was agreed that Iranian investments would be used to put several automobile companies back into operation, to purchase the assets and debts of floundering Egyptian companies, and to rehabilitate closed factories. El-Uqeili also confirmed forthcoming talks with the Ministry of Aviation regarding the resumption of a direct air route between Cairo and Iran and the use of Cairo Airport as a transit station for Iranian passengers, the number of which could exceed two million a year and generate considerable revenues.
According to El-Uqeili, officials envision establishing industrial projects in three governorates, Beni Sweif, Minya and Sohag, covering an area of three million square metres. The projects will include automobile manufacturing and assembly plants, flour mills capable of processing a million tons of wheat a year, a butagas bottling plant with a total production capacity of no less than 10 million bottles a year, and various food processing and packaging complexes. The investment vision further extends to tourism, through the construction of hotels, touristic villages and a variety of complimentary touristic activities, as well as to land reclamation and support services for oil and gas exploration, drilling and production.
In spite of the huge sums being discussed and the potential benefits of the investments, many have voiced concerns over a possible Shia proselytising drive.
The Iranian ambassador in Cairo Mojtaba Amani dismissed such fears as pure illusions. "We seek the unity of the Islamic nation. Also, if Iran wanted to spread Shia Islam, it would have begun with the Sunnis at home who account for 10 per cent of the Iranian population and who remain true to their doctrinal beliefs. Moreover, millions of Iranian tourists visit Saudi Arabia, the countries of the Gulf, Turkey and Syria every year. There has never been a single report of an Iranian attempt to proselytise Shia Islam since the Islamic revolution."
Amani added, "We should also bear in mind that Al-Azhar recognises Shia Islam together with the four schools of Sunni Islam. Nevertheless, there have been numerous spurious fabrications, such as Shia use a different Quran, worship a different prophet and pray in different ways. These are lies. The differences between Sunna and Shia are solely in form, however, certain political forces that seek to dominate the Islamic world are determined to sow discord between Muslim peoples."
Iran, most recently through Amani's auspices, has offered immediate financial assistance to offset US pressure and to stimulate healthy economic growth. Indeed, a brief look at the types of investments being envisioned, especially those intended to rehabilitate Egypt's moribund automobile manufacturing industry, indicate a determination to promote the development of a robust domestic industrial base, as well as to increase employment opportunities and to enhance the technical expertise of Egyptian labour. This, together with the tourist projects, the new flight route and the prospect of an influx of tourists from Iran should require a more objective and realistic assessment of our development and growth needs. In particular, Egyptian authorities should consider being more flexible with regard to granting tourist visas to Iranian citizens.
Many observers maintain that Khaled Islambouli Street in Iran, named after the assassin of former president Anwar El-Sadat, should not become the byname for the project to restore relations between Egypt and Iran. In all events, the friends of Khaled El-Islambouli have been released from prison since the revolution amidst many cheers. Observers also believe that Egyptian foreign policy is on the verge of an important breakthrough and that Egypt will soon enter a new era in which its policies will be dictated by its own interests, above all.