Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1317, (27 October - 2 November 2016)
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1317, (27 October - 2 November 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Cairo and Tehran: What’s in a picture?

Dina Ezzat on the shifting profile of Egyptian-Iranian relations

Al-Ahram Weekly

When Egypt’s security apparatus told a private TV channel to remove a promotional poster that included a picture of Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s highest religious authority, the intention was clear — to dampen speculation of a rapprochement between Cairo and Tehran. The decision was made after reproductions of the poster appeared in press reports hyping improvements in Egyptian-Iranian relations against a backdrop of growing tension between Cairo and Riyadh.

Speculation about a thaw in relations between Cairo and Iran — they have not had full diplomatic relations for close to four decades — first gained momentum on the back of another image, a photograph of the Egyptian and Iranian foreign ministers meeting on the side-lines of September’s Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit in Venezuela. Then when TV and press commentators began hinting at a possible dramatic shift in relations between Cairo and Tehran, speculations began to reach fever pitch.

The situation was compounded last week when Tehran made public that it was behind the eleventh hour participation of Egypt at the Lausanne meeting on Syria.

Officials in Cairo concede Egypt was not initially scheduled to attend the meeting. Efforts to secure an American invitation, they say, fell on deaf ears. It was only during a phone call between the top diplomats of Egypt and the US on Friday that Washington agreed to Egypt’s attendance at the following day’s meeting. The change in Washington’s position followed Iranian intervention that came in the wake of a rare phone call between President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and the prime minister of Iraq, one of Tehran’s key regional allies. Untypically, news of the phone call was released by Cairo.

“All of these incidents did happen, and there have also been unannounced contacts between the foreign minister and [his Iranian counterpart] Javad Zarif. Iran has been showing interest in upgrading cooperation with Egypt, and perhaps in upgrading relations,” says an informed Egyptian diplomat.

He cautions that it is one thing for these contacts to happen and quite another to expect — “as has been suggested in parts of the media” — that this will lead to a prompt upgrade in relations or major economic deals such as oil supplies to compensate for those halted by Aramco, the Saudi oil company.

Egypt, stresses the diplomat, is working to fix the rift with Riyadh, and “the complexities of Egyptian-Iranian relations cannot be resolved overnight simply to pressure the Saudis”.

Saudi Arabia’s rulers have long perceived Iran as a direct threat to their power, fearing Tehran’s influence over its own considerable Shia population, something of which Cairo has been mindful for the last 20 years.

Egypt’s own rift with Iran started with Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution against the Shah. It worsened when President Anwar Al-Sadat offered refuge to the toppled ruler and in 1979 Tehran severed relations with Cairo. 

Iran went on to host leading figures involved in the October 1981 assassination of Sadat and named a street in Iran after Khaled Islambouli, one of Sadat’s assassins. 

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s relations between the two countries were administered through interest sections and all forms of bilateral cooperation suspended. What multilateral relations survived, most notably contacts over the initiative to promote the Middle East as a nuclear weapons free area, were conducted through the UN.

Towards the end of the 1990s, with the ascendency of the reformist Mohamed Khatami, Tehran began making overtures towards Egypt. Facing international boycott, Tehran was hoping to open up channels of regional cooperation. A visit by the Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati to Egypt in the summer of 1997 was followed, in December of the same year, by then foreign minister Amr Moussa heading the Egyptian delegation to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Summit in Tehran, opening the door to rumours about the resumption of relations. They proved unfounded, as did similar speculation in 2004 when president Hosni Mubarak met with Khatami in New York.

Diplomats serving at the time say that while Saudi sensitivity was a factor in Cairo’s refusal of Iranian overtures, the real clincher was the veto of intelligence chief Omar Suleiman who argued Iran would use the reopening of relations to seek to extend its influence over radical Islamist groups in Egypt and maybe attempt to pressure Cairo via Egypt’s small Shia population. Mubarak later described all Arab Shias as agents of the Iranian regime.

In the wake of the 2011 Revolution foreign minister Nabil Al-Arabi publicly stated there was no reason for Egypt not to resume diplomatic relations with Iran “given that all the Gulf countries maintain a considerable diplomatic presence in Tehran”.

The intelligence services overruled Al-Arabi. A diplomat serving in the cabinet of the foreign minister at the time told Al-Ahram Weekly that Al-Arabi was told by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to drop the matter.

During his one-year rule Mohamed Morsi visited Tehran at the head of the Egyptian delegation to the NAM conference.

“Even then,” says the same Egyptian diplomat, “Morsi made a point of having first visited Saudi Arabia.”

“The visit was not exactly profound and was made against security and diplomatic advice out of a keen wish of the new president to signal a major shift in foreign policy from that of Mubarak. “There was also a wish to explore the possibility of economic cooperation.”

Under Morsi Egypt resumed negotiations with Iran over joint flights from the Middle East to South America and the ban on Egyptian tourists visiting Iran was rescinded, at least on paper. 

Some Iranian tourists visited Egypt and went sight-seeing in Luxor though they were prevented from visiting mosques of Cairo associated with the grandchildren of Prophet Mohamed.

“Such visits over-ruled by the security in no uncertain terms,” said a government official who handled logistical aspects of the Iranian visits.

Demonstrations in front of the residence of the head of the Iranian diplomatic mission in Cairo quickly halted further tourism. And after the gruesome murder of an Egyptian Shia cleric in Giza few weeks before Morsi’s ouster on 3 July 2013 tensions between Cairo and Tehran returned.

Egyptian-Iranian relations were back to where they were during Mubarak’s three-decade rule.

Egyptian diplomats and security officials who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly say that whatever overtures Tehran made Egyptian apprehension was justified given Iranian schemes for regional hegemony and Tehran’s willingness to use religious and sectarian affiliation to further its aims.

Cairo’s reservations were compounded by Iranian support for Sunni Hamas in Gaza and Shia Hizbullah in Lebanon. Both groups were qualified by the Mubarak regime as political enemies who were seeking to destablise Egypt.

“This has changed recently with Hizbullah if not with Hamas,” says an Egyptian diplomat. “Now it is all about Syria”.

Hizbullah, with a long history of support by the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad and by Tehran during its war to liberate southern Lebanon from Israeli occupation, is now fighting on the side of the ruling regime in Syria. Egypt, say informed sources, has opened up to Hizbullah, receiving several high-level delegations during the last three years.

The same sources say Egypt is using its new-found channel of communication to mediate in Yemen between the Houthis, supported by Iran, and Sunni political groups supported by Riyadh.  

“Hizbullah has been used to facilitate talks,” says one informed official, and the talks have continued despite Egypt providing a “reluctant military support” to the Saudis in Yemen.

“Let me be very clear about one thing,” stresses the source. “Cairo’s objective is not to take the side of the Houthis but convince them to agree to a political deal in the hope of ending a war in Yemen that is giving Cairo many reasons to worry: first because it is happening on the Egypt’s Red Sea doorstep and also because it is prompting endless Saudi pressure on Egypt to provide more visible and concrete military support.”

Egypt, say officials, may be willing to talk to the Iranians, the Houthis, the Shia rulers of Iraq and with Hizbullah, but this does not mean it is willing to undermine its strategic alliances. Concern in Cairo about the Islamist threat to the region is too strong for that.

In the words of another Egyptian diplomat this is why Cairo makes a point of inviting someone like Samir Geagea, a leading Christian Lebanese leader and vocal opponent of Hizbullah, in the wake of any meeting with a Hizbullah delegation.

“Of course we play politics but I don’t think we are ready for any dramatic shifts of relations — not with Iran and not with the Saudis,” he says.

According to Mohamed Abbas Nady, editor of the monthly Iranian Selections published by Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, it would be a mistake to confuse “limited rapport on some specific regional matters, especially the situation in Syria” with a dramatic shift in relations between Egypt and Iran.

“I don’t see it coming,” says Nady, “and the exchange of visits here and there or side-line meetings that took place in the past few weeks do not herald such a shift.”

Nady argues that while Egypt and Iran are both supporting the Al-Assad regime they are doing so for different reasons. Egypt is keen on preserving what is left of the Syrian state while Iran is supporting an ally that could in the future side with Tehran against Riyadh. 

Nady is also convinced that Iran’s friendship is not being offered for free. “What Iran would want is for Egypt to support Tehan’s regional positions and this is not possible given Egypt’s regional alliances.”

Egypt has regularly criticised Iranian intervention in the internal affairs of Arab countries and repeatedly underlined its commitment to Gulf security.

According to concerned Egyptian diplomats, Tehran wanted the Egyptians, as well as the Iraqis, in Lausanne to counterbalance participants at the meeting opposed to Al-Assad while Cairo was keen to attend to send a clear message of its diplomatic weight to the Saudis and to Moscow, which had failed to push for Cairo’s attendance in the way it did, earlier in the year, ahead of the Syria meeting in Vienna.

The same diplomats also say that while it would be wrong to expect any dramatic shifts to happen in the near future it would be equally misguided to discount the possibility of Cairo capitalising on any possible openings given the considerable economic and political challenges that Cairo is facing, both domestically and abroad.

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