Iranian-Egyptian relations have been an often-overlooked aspect of Middle Eastern and international politics over the last thirty years, due in no small part to the almost complete lack of ties between the two states following Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1979. Whilst these two great Middle Eastern powers have been linked over thousands of years of history, the last thirty years have been characterized by a distinct lack of inter-state relations, and considerable enmity and distrust. However, with the fall of the Hosni Mubarak regime following the momentous events of 25 January 2011, will Iranian-Egyptian relations encounter a “new dawn”, characterized by friendship and amity? Or are Iran and Egypt doomed to the continuing enmity and distrust which has poisoned relations between these two great regional powers for the last thirty years?
Iran and Egypt - Amity and Enmity
As two of the world’s oldest civilizations, Iranian-Egyptian interactions entail thousands of years of history and have fluctuated between periods of both cooperation and competition, and friendship and hostility. The last thirty years of Iranian-Egyptian relations have been increasingly bogged down in the sands of distrust, missed opportunities, and rapidly changing domestic and regional circumstances.
On the eve of the Islamic Revolution, Iran and Egypt shared close relations, due in no small part to the close personal friendship between Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi and Anwar al-Sadat. The pro-Western orientation of both governments during the Cold War, and the common fear of domestic Islamist and communist forces in both states drew Iran and Egypt together into a close strategic and political relationship. However, with the fall of the Shah, and the rise to power of Ayatollah Khomeini and his revolutionary cadres, Iranian-Egyptian ties took a turn for the worse, and entered a period of deep freeze, with neither side willing or able to broach the intense ideological and political differences which the change of regime in Iran quickly brought about.
A number of factors contributed to the breakdown of Iranian-Egyptian relations in the immediate post-revolutionary period. In particular, Khomeini’s denouncement of Sadat’s close relations with the United States and the Shah, along with his decision to sign a formal Egypt-Israel peace treaty in 1979, undermined Iran and Egypt’s once strong political partnership. Khomeini urged Egyptians to “cut off the hands of this traitor [Sadat] and wipe out this shame to Islam who is subservient to Imperialism and Zionism.” Khomeini’s virulent stance on Sadat’s policies enraged the Egyptian government. However, it was Iran’s ill-advised commemoration, through the naming of a street in Tehran after Sadat’s assassin Khalid Islambouli, which had the ultimate effect of destroying any future chance that Iran and Egypt could reinstate ties and participate in what could be considered a “normal” inter-state relationship in the post-revolutionary period.
Following al-Sadat’s assassination, his successor Hosni Mubarak railed against Iran, using the Islambouli controversy, Khomeini’s aggressive rhetoric, and Iran’s support for Islamist movements such as Hamas and Hezbollah to legitimate Egypt’s efforts to keep Iran in diplomatic isolation from the rest of the region. Thus, Egypt became a major supporter of Saddam Hussein’s military actions against Iran during the Iran-Iraq War. Egypt, according to some estimates, provided Iraq with five billion dollars in military aid, which included the supply of munitions, tanks, and missiles. Furthermore, throughout the 1990s, Egypt supported the efforts of other regional states like Saudi Arabia to establish a so-called “Sunni-Arab bulwark” aimed at counterbalancing Iran’s presumed influence over Shi‘a populations in the region.
Whilst Iran and Egypt remained implacable enemies throughout the post-1979 period, it must be noted that several attempts had been made, particularly by Iran, to bring about rapprochement between the two states. Following Khomeini’s death, and the end of the Iran-Iraq War, Iranian political elites considerably toned down the revolutionary rhetoric, which had seen Iran outcast from its own region and sought to engage in greater political interaction with Egypt and the other Arab Middle Eastern states. This saw Iran throughout the 1990s improve its relations and commercial activities with a number of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states such as Bahrain and Qatar, take tentative steps to improve its relations with Saudi Arabia, and participate in joint economic initiatives with a number of regional states through the framework of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO).
In the context of Iran’s relations with Egypt, former Iranian Presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Seyyed Mohammad Khatami, and current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad all attempted to engage in dialogue with the Egyptian government with little success. Khatami, for instance, attempted to remove one of the major obstacles hindering the development of Iranian-Egyptian relations by renaming the street previously named after Sadat’s assassin to “Intifada.” Ahmadinejad also sought to create closer ties with Mubarak’s Egypt, declaring at an official summit in the United Arab Emirates in 2007, that Iran was “determined to pursue normalization of relations with Egypt, and if the Egyptian government declares its readiness, before the working hour is over today, we are willing to open Iran’s embassy in Cairo.” Along with such declarations, Ahmadinejad consistently attempted to deepen political, trade, and economic ties with the Egyptian government, offering numerous “olive branches” throughout his presidential tenure.
However, such attempts came to no avail, as the Mubarak regime was unwilling to deal with a state that it viewed as an existential threat to regional stability. Rather, the platform of distrust, which had been set in the early years of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, Tehran’s opposition to the state of Israel, and Egypt’s close ties with the United States and the GCC states, coupled with Mubarak’s deep personal distrust and “visceral hatred” of Iranian leaders, whom he considered to be “liars” and “supporters of terror,” in effect doomed any prospect of rapprochement between the two states.
A New Dawn? Iran and Egyptian Relations in the Post-Mubarak Era
Mubarak’s ouster in February 2011 has rapidly changed the prospects of greater Iranian-Egyptian engagement. Iran has at various times throughout the post-revolutionary era enjoyed a good level of popularity among Egyptian opinion-shapers for a variety of reasons, such as its pro-Palestinian stance on the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and its militant third-worldism. This popularity on the so-called “Arab street” along with the increased presence of Islamist political movements in Egyptian domestic politics, led many analysts to consider it to be an almost foregone conclusion that Iranian-Egyptian ties would increase in scope and significance following almost thirty years of enmity between the two states. However, the prospects of Iranian-Egyptian rapprochement are not as simple as they may seem at first glance.
Initial Egyptian Foreign policy overtures post-25 January were favorable towards Iran. After the appointment of Nabil al-Arabi as Egyptian Foreign Minister in February 2011, a range of new policy directives were proposed, such as supporting the plight of Palestinians in Gaza and moving to de-thaw relations with Iran. In February 2011, Egypt allowed two Iranian naval vessels to pass through the Suez Canal, something that was prohibited during Mubarak’s rule. In a meeting in April 2011, al-Arabi met with Mogtabi Amani, the head of the Iran’s Interest Section in Egypt, and announced that Cairo and Tehran should have relations that reflect their cultural and civilizational ties, declaring “Iran is our neighbour and we have long-standing historical ties throughout different eras.” Al-Arabi added that Egypt is ready to turn over a “new leaf” in its relations with other countries, including Iran. However, since al-Arabi left the post of Foreign Minister in May 2011 to become Secretary-General of the Arab League, official Egyptian approaches toward Iran have gone silent.
Sectarian Divides and Political Ties: The Egyptian Domestic Context
The domestic political context within Egypt may have influenced the official position on rapprochement between Iran and Egypt. Egyptian Islamists, now a dominant force in Egyptian politics, have taken largely similar positions regarding Iran. The Salafists take a hard line position, similar to that of the former Mubarak regime and the military, namely that Egypt should seek relations with Iran, but not at the expense of Egypt’s relations with the GCC states, especially Saudi Arabia.
Al-Nour, the leading Salafist party, took an even more hardline position accusing Iran of attempting to spread Shi`isim in Egypt. These accusations seem to have gathered traction within official religious circles in Egypt. In May 2012, The grand Shiek of Al-Azhar, Ahmad al-Tayeb chaired an extraordinary meeting between Azhar scholars, Salafist figures, Muslim Brotherhood members, al-Ashraaf (descendants of the Prophet Muhammad), and Sufi clerics to "lead the fight" against the apparent “spread” of Shi‘ism in Egypt. The meeting was in response to the recent visit by Lebanese Shi‘ite Cleric Ali al-Korany who gave several lectures in Egypt, and participated in the inauguration ceremony of a Shi‘ite mosque. Korany’s visit ignited a storm in Egypt, leading a member of the Egyptian parliament to submit a motion demanding that the Egyptian government report on its efforts to curtail the threat of Shia influence in Egypt.
This hardline, anti-Shi‘ite position enunciated by a number of Egyptian Islamist groups raises the question of how much influence Saudi Arabia and the other GCC states have in shaping the domestic Egyptian political discourse, particularly among Islamist groups. In recent months a number of Egyptian Salafist groups have been accused of receiving significant amounts of financial support for their election campaigns from Saudi Arabia, and are viewed by a number of Egyptian commentators as a conduit for Saudi influence and views. Such suspicions are not misplaced. In many respects the anti-Iranian, pro-Gulf line pursued so strongly by a number of Egyptian Salafist groups is almost identical to that of the position of the Saudi regime, which has made no secret of its disdain for the Iranian regime, due to a range of sectarian, political, and geopolitical factors, and has on a number of occasions called on the United States government “to cut the head off the snake.”
While Egyptian Salafist groups take a combative position vis-à-vis Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood’s position on Iran has fluctuated frequently over the years. Initially, the Muslim Brotherhood welcomed the Islamic Revolution in Iran, while expressing some reservations about its sectarian orientation. In January, 1982 Omar al-Tilmsany, then-leader of the Muslim Brotherhood told the Egyptian media: “We support Imam Khomeini politically, because an oppressed people was able to get rid of a despotic ruler, however from a religious doctrine point of view, there is a fundamental difference between Sunni and Shiite Islam.” In the post-25 January context, the Muslim Brotherhood has called for closer ties with Iran. The Foreign Relations Committee in the Egyptian Parliament, led by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Essam al-Erian, has recommended that the Egyptian Foreign Ministry pursue rapprochement with Iran while deepening business and cultural ties. However, the major obstacle continues to be Egypt’s ties with the GCC states, which the Muslim Brotherhood, like fellow Islamist groups, believes should not be damaged by pursuing relations with Iran. The Muslim Brotherhood also differs with Iran on Syria. The Brotherhood and its regional offshoots, such as Hamas, have declared their full support of the uprising in Syria, while Iran, for a range of strategic reasons, has propped up the Assad regime and is still considered its staunchest ally.
Between a Rock and a Hard Place – The Egyptian Military Establishment
Although the impact of local politics on Egyptian foreign policy is arguably a factor in shaping the trajectory of Iranian-Egyptian relations for the foreseeable future, such influences should not be overstated. Egypt’s alliance with the United States, as the main pillar of Egypt’s foreign policy over the last thirty years, and the privileged position of the Egyptian military, should in no way be disregarded when viewing the prospects of improved Iranian-Egyptian relations. Even though Mubarak is long gone, the Egyptian military maintains strong relations with the American government and American arms manufacturers. The billions of dollars in annual United States military aid to Egypt is designed to cement strong relations between the two states, increase the United States’ influence within Egyptian ruling and military circles, and more importantly to secure the Egyptian-Israeli Peace treaty, seen by Washington as a cornerstone of stability in the Middle East.
Whilst many commentators within Egypt have called for greater independence within Egyptian foreign policy, including the amendment, if not the scrapping, of the peace treaty with Israel, such a prospect remains far-fetched, with the military more than likely to remain in a strong position to shape the trajectory of Egyptian foreign policy for many years to come. For instance, through what was known as the “Al-Selmi document,” the SCAF-sponsored government of Essam Sharaf proposed a number of constitutional principles that would normalize the power of the military in the post-Mubarak political landscape. One proposed clause stated was that the military would not be held to account by the Egyptian parliament, and would have effective veto power over decisions to declare war. Such clauses reflect the military’s efforts to maintain its political and economic hegemony, and to preserve its influence over Egyptian foreign policy making decisions. Such endeavours, in many respects, place Iranian-Egyptian rapprochement between a “rock and a hard place” so to speak—the Islamists and the Generals.
The View from Tehran
As political developments in Egypt continue to take shape in the lead up to the presidential election on 23 and 24 May, Iranian political leaders have remained cautiously optimistic about the chances of increased relations with post-Mubarak Egypt. However, the prospects that tentative improvements in relations could take place have been rocked by a number of diplomatic controversies. In recent weeks the Saudi embassy and the Egyptian security services accused three Iranians of planning to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to Egypt, stoking a mini-diplomatic crisis between Tehran and Cairo. Furthermore, an Iranian diplomat only last year was kicked out of Egypt for allegations of spying. Whilst the veracity of these accusations cannot be confirmed, it is clear that segments of Egypt’s political elite, and indeed a number of Egypt’s current international partners would prefer the continuation of hostile Egyptian-Iranian relations.
Along with these tricky diplomatic situations, Iranian political elites have made a number of strategic gaffes and political missteps in recent months, which only heighten the difficulties of full normalization of ties between the two states. Although Egypt welcomed Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi’s praise for efforts to prosecute former members of the Mubarak regime for past wrong-doing, many Egyptians, including prominent members of the Muslim Brotherhood, lashed out at Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s comments that awkwardly linked Egypt’s Revolution with that of Iran’s. Compounding Khamenei’s misreading of Egypt’s political situation has been Iran’s inability to respond effectively to the rapidly changing events in the Middle East in the wake of the so-called “Arab Spring”. Whilst Iranian leaders have praised the overthrow of Arab dictators such as Mubarak, Gaddafi and Ben Ali, they have also has sought to stabilise and re-fortify Iran’s own authoritarian edifice. The widespread questioning of the legitimacy of the 2009 Iranian presidential election, the unwillingness of the regime to address the demands of the Green Movement, its house arrest of key reformist figures such as Mir-Hossein Mousavi, and its continued support for the Assad regime in Syria have undermined the goodwill Iran could have cultivated with the Egyptian people. In this context, it has become exceedingly difficult for Iran to place itself front and center in the post-revolutionary events that have developed in Egypt over the last year.
Conclusion: Will the Future Bring Closer Ties between Iran and Egypt?
Although the January 25 Revolution has provided new impetus for closer Egypt-Iran relations, it remains unlikely, at least in the short term, that ties between these two states will normalize and take on a more friendly veneer. The baggage of Iran’s immediate post-revolutionary past, the perceived sectarian Shiite character of its policy orientations, and Arab fears of Iran’s intentions—justified or not—will remain major obstacles for Iranian foreign policy elites. Furthermore, the increased economic and political reliance Egypt places on a number of Iran’s arch foes, in particular, Saudi Arabia and the United States, places Iran at a significant disadvantage no matter who is in charge in Egypt.