Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1258, (13 - 19 August 2015)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1258, (13 - 19 August 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Egypt’s relations with Iran

Egypt should abandon the wait-and-see approach it has adopted towards Iran and take concrete steps to promote its interests with Tehran, writes Eman Ragab

Al-Ahram Weekly

For Egypt, the chief result of the agreement reached in Vienna between Iran and the leading Western powers is the legitimacy Iran has won as a regional power. It is no longer part of the “axis of evil” or a “pariah” state, but is instead a potential friend or ally of other countries.

Iran’s re-establishment as a recognised power in the region has political and economic dimensions that will inevitably affect Egyptian activity on regional issues. Politically, the US and Europe are keen to bring Iran on board as part of efforts to resolve regional conflicts and issues. Economically, Iran will become a major focus for European investment.

It should be borne in mind that Iran ranks 18th in the world in terms of its economic strength, and it has 80 million well-educated people, plus vast quantities of oil and gas and a robust industrial base.

Especially now that the agreement has begun to go into effect, Egypt should abandon the wait-and-see approach it has adopted towards Tehran since the 30 June Revolution. It should take concrete steps to resume a course that promotes Egyptian interests, without prejudicing Cairo’s strategic alliance with the Gulf countries and, in particular, with Saudi Arabia. The latter country has an extremely conservative outlook on relations with Iran and on Iran’s relation to its national interests.

Otherwise put, an Egyptian decision not to deal with Iran will be of no use in promoting an effective Egyptian role, individually or together with others, in any of the issues that jeopardise Egypt’s interests or that offer some scope for Egyptian influence, as is the case with the conflict in Syria, for example.

Although recent moves have suggested that Egyptian decision-makers are “re-evaluating options” with regard to Iran, and although Iran has made it clear that it is ready to work with Egypt, Egypt has yet to formulate clear policies with regard to Iran.

On 2 June, the Iranian foreign minister, Mohamed Javad Zarif, said that there had been “communications” with Egypt and that his country was ready to discuss areas of difference and to cooperate with Egypt, a statement that Egypt has neither confirmed nor denied.

The shift in the question of interacting with Iran from a deferrable to an urgent matter is linked to two factors other than the shift in Iran’s international status. The first has to do with changes in the Gulf countries’ attitudes towards Iran in recent years.

After learning of the secret talks between Iran and the West in Oman in March 2013, the Gulf countries, to varying degrees and probably independently of each other, decided not to boycott or to isolate Iran in the Gulf region. Instead, they decided to “keep pace” with the evolution in Iran’s regional status brought about by the negotiations over its nuclear programme.

The Gulf countries recognise the geographical realities. Iran is their neighbour. They cannot change that fact on the map, so they simply have to deal with it. Some Gulf leaders have made this point explicit, including the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohamed bin Rashed Al-Maktoum, who has said, “The state of Iran has been our neighbour for thousands of years. It is a Muslim country, and I do not believe it poses a nuclear threat.”

In an interview with the BBC in January 2014, he also said, “Iran is our neighbour. We do not want problems with it. Lift the sanctions and all will benefit.” Saudi policies towards Iran are also changing, in part due to the changes in the governing hierarchy in the country at the beginning of this year and in part in response to regional developments.

It has become increasingly clear that there are differences over Iran within the Saudi royal house, leading to the conclusion that the outlook that portrays Iran as a main threat to Saudi national security and to the Saudi regional role is only one trend, and not the only effective trend, in Saudi ruling circles.

In general, the changes in Iran’s international status will compel Riyadh to adopt a more realistic and pragmatic approach to Iran in the coming period. On the whole, it recognises the need to accept Iran as a regional power, while at the same time insisting on the need to resolve disputes with it bilaterally.

The special annex to the concluding statement of the Camp David meeting between the Gulf countries and the US in May is consistent with this outlook. This calls for “the normalisation of relations with Iran in the event that it halts activities that harm stability in the region.”

Moreover, a number of statements from Saudi officials have suggested that Riyadh approves of the idea of a “conditional engagement” with Iran. During his visit to Cairo on 31 May, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jobeir listed three conditions to which Iran needed to adhere: nonintervention in the affairs of the states of the region, abstaining from supporting terrorism and not taking any actions detrimental to the interests or the peoples of the region.

Supposing that, as some believe, the Saudi position on Iran presents an outside restraint on Egyptian policies toward Iran, then a change in that position would give Egypt more room to determine the nature of its relationship with Tehran. Because of its ability to broaden its influence in the region by supporting certain parties in the conflicts that are currently raging in Yemen and Syria, for example, Iran has become a power that Egypt cannot afford to ignore.

The second factor that makes the question of dealing with Iran more urgent is the fact that both Riyadh and Tehran have begun to look towards Egypt as a counterweight that they hope to use against one another in their traditional rivalry for influence in the region. This was reflected in the remarks made by Al-Jobeir during his visit to Cairo.

Shortly afterwards, his Iranian counterpart called on Egypt to undertake “a constructive role in the region” and spoke of “ongoing consultations” between Tehran and Cairo, with analysts seeing this as Javad Zarif’s response to Al-Jobeir’s statements in Cairo.

Egypt needs to adopt a new policy towards Iran. The “business-as-usual” approach will not promote Egyptian interests. This is consistent with the outlook of many political circles in Egypt that see Iran as a modern state with vast resources, a rich heritage and an active foreign policy, and as a country that Egypt cannot ignore. The awareness of Iran’s growing strength as a regional power in the Middle East has only strengthened this conviction.

As Egypt formulates its new approach it will need to discuss various disputed bilateral questions, such as security-related issues and the question of Iranian support for the Muslim Brotherhood. At the same time, it will be necessary to consider mechanisms for engaging with Iran at various levels, whether bilaterally or through regional channels created for the purpose, in order to discuss regional issues and especially the more controversial ones.

The writer is a researcher at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

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