Saturday,21 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1241, (9-15 April 2015)
Saturday,21 July, 2018
Issue 1241, (9-15 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Egypt between Tehran and Riyadh

While Cairo and Tehran have more in common than otherwise thought, Saudi assistance leaves its mark on Egypt’s regional calculations, Dina Ezzat reports

Al-Ahram Weekly

Egypt was not comfortable to see Iran and the West sign the Lausanne framework agreement last week, but neither is it comfortable being “literally” dragged into a war in Yemen based on the “excessive concerns” of Saudi Arabia over Iranian influence. This is the basic line official quarters in Cairo  political, military and economic are holding to.

A “cold peace” is often the term used to qualify Egyptian-Israeli relations that were established in 1979 with the signing of the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty. It is, however, a more appropriate qualification agree some Egyptian diplomats  for the state of affairs between Cairo and Tehran that were severed in the same year.

 But according to a high-level diplomatic source, and despite “the many problems that we have with the Iranian wish for regional hegemony, especially in the Mashreq and around the Gulf”, Egypt has “no interest whatsoever” in picking a fight “either directly or indirectly with Iran”.

 Iran, the same diplomat said, “is surely” trying to be the top regional power and is playing all sorts of games that are in part designed to challenge Egypt’s influence across the countries of the Mashreq and the Gulf, especially with its support for militant Islamic groups like Hamas and Hizbullah who “clearly stand against the firm Egyptian position of peaceful coexistence with Israel”. It is also, he added, trying to “empower the Shia communities in all Arab countries”, to gain ground there.

 However, the same diplomatic source insisted, Iran is also keen on combatting the presence of radical Islamic groups that pose a joint serious threat, not just to Iran but also to the ruling authorities in Egypt and all Cairo’s regional allies.

 Official Egyptian sources that have followed Egyptian-Iranian relations, both bilaterally and in multilateral diplomatic venues, have always had accounts to share in relation to joint Egyptian-Iranian interests some economic, others relating to combatting radical Islamic groups in Afghanistan and Iraq.

 More often than not, during the last 35 years or so, there was joint interest on both sides to move beyond animosity. “This is prompted by real interests based on what each country could offer to the other. But it was an interest that never really materialised, although there were moments where it could have happened,” said an Egyptian diplomat who served in Tehran.

 He added that more often than not the “initiative” was Iranian and the hesitation was Egyptian something Iranian diplomats over the years pointed out as well.

 Immediately after the ouster of the Shah of Iran, who was ultimately given life-saving refuge by late President Anwar Al-Sadat (and is buried at Al-Rifai Mosque), Cairo did not act to cut relations with Tehran. It was the Islamic Republic that took the step.

 The assassin of Al-Sadat, Khaled Al-Islambouli, is glorified in a huge mural in one of Tehran’s main roads, and several Islamist figures long wanted by Egyptian security were given refuge by Iran throughout the years. However, as a retired intelligence officer says, “it was always a cold war and there was never a reason to pursue direct hostilities with Iran.”

 During the years of the Iraq-Iran war, Egypt along with almost the rest of the Arab Gulf countries supported Saddam Hussein as the “guard of the eastern borders of the Arab world”. “It was intelligence assistance; we helped shipping arms and facilitating deals and money transfers, but we did not get directly involved. It was not our war; we feared the Iranian wish to export the Islamic Revolution,” the same intelligence source said.

“It was something that [ousted president Hosni] Mubarak worried about, and we were allies with the Gulf and it was right after the return of Egypt to the Arab League [following a freeze on its membership after the signing of the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty], but we did not perceive Iran as a direct enemy,” the source continued.

 Things then changed with Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent Egypt-Gulf alliance under US command to liberate Kuwait and keep the Iraqi army at bay vis-à-vis petrified Gulf countries.

At the time, the same intelligence source said, there were “some channels” opened with Iran from several Arab countries the beginning of the end of animosity between the Arabs and Iran following the ouster of the Shah.

 As of the early 1990s, Egyptian and Iranian diplomats were feeling less apprehensive to talk and coordinate directly in the corridors of the UN in New York and Geneva. They worked together following the liberation of Kuwait to promote regional diplomatic initiatives that had two common objectives: put limitations on the military supremacy of Israel; and combat the growing influence of radical Islamist groups exiting Afghanistan into neighbouring states.

 The election of the top reformist figure in Iran, Mohamed Khatami, as president of Iran offered a new horizon for multilateral cooperation and suggested possible bilateral chances as well.

 In 1997, then Egyptian foreign minister Amr Moussa arrived to Tehran in a much-celebrated visit to head the Egyptian delegation to the summit of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (now the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation). Moussa was warmly welcomed by top Iranian figures: the supreme guide, the president and the speaker of the parliament. The visit was given prominence on Iranian TV and in the press.

 “At the time we were thinking that resuming relations with Iran, or at least the start of a process to resume relations with Iran, could reshuffle the highly unfavourable regional balance of power that was clearly allowing Israel unmasked regional weight. We were also thinking that Iran and Egypt could have many economic interests together,” said a diplomat who joined Moussa on his trip.

He added that at the time the assessment at the Egyptian Foreign Ministry was that Iran was over with the idea of exporting the Islamic Revolution and that under Khatami it was presenting itself to the world as an Islamic country that wished to cooperate with the rest of the world.

 This, however, he added, was not the assessment of the intelligence services and they insisted that Iran was still a threat and that if we were to resume relations it would allow for endless Iranian tourists to mosques related to the grandchildren of the Prophet Mohamed that are top destinations for the Shia, and through these groups of tourists militants would be allowed to infiltrate and wreak havoc in Egypt.

 The disagreement between the Egyptian Foreign Ministry and the intelligence agencies over the matter continued. Egyptian intelligence failed to block a short meeting that the Foreign Ministry later organised for Mubarak and Khatami in Geneva on the fringes of the World Summit on Information Technology in late 2003.

 Following the meeting, Mubarak qualified relations between Egypt and Iran as “normal relations” and Mohamed Abatahi, a senior advisor to Khatami, said that it was only a matter of time before full diplomatic relations between Egypt and Iran would be resumed (a matter of weeks, he suggested).

 Egyptian intelligence blocked the decision. “Omar Suleiman (Mubarak’s most trusted and powerful head of intelligence) opposed it firmly. Moussa was already out as foreign minister and the process lost momentum,” said a former presidential source.

 According to the intelligence source, Suleiman “knew that despite the diplomatic discourse that Iran was involved in the attack that aimed to assassinate Mubarak in 1995 (upon his arrival to Addis Ababa for the African Summit) through Iranian influence in Sudan, he also knew first hand that Saudi Arabia would not approve of closer Egyptian-Iranian relations.”

 The limited level of diplomatic exchange was slightly upgraded, but the much-awaited restoration of full diplomatic ties was fudged.

 The rise in political and military influence of the Iran-supported Hizbullah in subsequent years, and the close rapport between the Lebanese Shia group, which opposed Saudi interests in both Lebanon and Syria, and Hamas aggravated Egyptian sensitivity towards Iran.

 Later, some top Egyptian officials, including cabinet ministers, were privately making remarks to the effect that Egypt was fighting “Iran, Hizbullah and Qatar” the latter the Arab Gulf country most resistant to Saudi hegemony over the Gulf Cooperation Council.

 At the time Cairo and Tehran stopped the very slow but ongoing negotiations over a change of the name of Khaled Al-Islambouli Street in Tehran, and/or the extradition of Egyptian militants given refuge in Iran. There were no avenues for any bilateral diplomatic upgrades, but economic cooperation was discussed. Also, multilateral cooperation was not suspended.

 Following the ouster of Mubarak in 2011, the mood seemed to change as the first post-Mubarak foreign minister, Nabil Al-Arabi, said there was “no reason why Egypt and Iran cannot have normal diplomatic ties whereby differences could be discussed”.

 Al-Arabi, according to Egyptian diplomats, sincerely believed that the phase of severed relations between Egypt and Iran should come to an end. But again, Egyptian intelligence stopped the momentum.

 Expectations took a new high when in August 2012 the newly elected president Mohamed Morsi arrived in Tehran at the head of the Egyptian delegation to the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement.

 The visit was followed by talks about the activation of earlier plans to upgrade the exchange of tourism, with Iran allowing keen Egyptian tourists easy access, and possible industrial and transport cooperation.

 “The Saudis did not like it; they did not like it even though Morsi had been to Saudi Arabia weeks ahead of his trip to Iran and had pledged there a full Sunni alliance. The Saudi had not liked Morsi from the beginning and they were not sure what he was up to with Iran, and although they were informed in detail about his talks with [then Iranian president Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, they were not reassured,” said an intelligence source.

 Upon the ouster of Morsi and the subsequent ascent to power of Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, Tehran was very careful with its diplomatic posturing, generally expressing support for the will of the Egyptian people. Tehran sent an envoy to the inauguration of Al-Sisi.

 According to the intelligence source, Iran “has since been sending clear messages of interest to open up and provide aid to Egypt”. “What the Iranians have been offering is interesting, but the constraints related to what we owe the Saudis are not small,” the source added.

 Today, there are some within official quarters in Cairo that feel once it is out of the diplomatic cold, Tehran will be more aggressive in pursuing its regional supremacy interests. This, they argue, is a good enough reason for Egypt to side with the Saudis or even with Israel in their anti-Iranian hostility. These voices, however, are still outweighed, in influence, by those in Cairo who argue that Egypt needs neither to rush towards opening up to Tehran, nor to pick up a fight with Iran in Yemen or elsewhere.

 The second group argues that Egypt and Iran have been cooperating to check the influence of radical Islamic groups both in Syria and Iraq. They remind that these groups are more of a threat to regional stability than Iran, which would once its deal with the West is finalised reduce its support to Hizbullah, Hamas and other such groups in lieu of the full reintegration of Iran into the international community.

 They also argue that it is only a matter of time before Turkey and Iran establish close cooperation based on joint economic interests and joint rejection to the establishment of a Kurdish state.

 The prevailing view in Cairo is that eventually the Saudis would have to live with the fact that Iran is coming back to the fore in the region, and that Egypt would rather work on balancing out an anticipated increase in the influence of Iran through diplomatic and economic measures. But this is not the wish of Riyadh, upon which Cairo is economically dependent.

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