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Egypt explains shift in relations with Iran

Egyptian diplomats say Cairo is pursuing stable relations – not a strategic alliance – with Damascus, Tehran and Baghdad

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 5 Apr 2011
Nabil El-Arabi
Egypt's foreign minister Nabil El-Arabi
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Foreign Minister Nabil El Arabi announced Tuesday afternoon that he recieved an invitation to visit Tehran and that he is planning to accept this invitation at some point.

"What we are pursuing with Tehran are normal relations – basic normal relations, no less no more," said an Egyptian foreign ministry source.

After facing a series of questions on Monday evening by concerned Gulf states on the announcement by Foreign Minister Nabil El-Arabi that Egypt and Iran will resume normal relations, the source said: "What Minister El-Arabi is talking about is that we will have normal relations with Iran and there is nothing extraordinary there given that Gulf countries themselves have embassies in Tehran."

Currently, Egypt and Iran exchange diplomatic missions – something that is slightly above interest sections and less than full-fledged embassies.

"The plan is to, yes, upgrade these missions into embassies and to keep the current head of diplomatic missions on as ambassadors," the same source added. This, he explained, does not amount to a strategic alliance "or anything of the sort as some Gulf capitals have been inclined to ask."

He added that Cairo is "conveying a message of assurance through diplomatic contacts to all concerned that Egypt remains committed to the collective Arab stance that calls for normal relations and non-interference all over the Middle East."

The queries made by some Gulf capitals were essentially prompted by the fall-out between Tehran and Riyadh over the Saudi’s discontent with Iran’s alleged interference in the "internal affairs" of Bahrain.

Saudi Arabia is convinced that it is Iranian meddling that has prompted the Shia majority in Bahrain to contest the rule of the Sunni minority.

"We remain sensitive to the concerns of all Arab countries but we also remain committed to uplift the profile of Egyptian diplomacy in the region – and we see no contradiction between these two," the same foreign ministry source said.

Relations between Egypt and Iran were severed by Tehran following the decision of Egypt to host the toppled Iranian Shah following the country’s Islamic Revolution in 1979.

Meanwhile, Egypt is also working on "easing tensions" with Syria. A recent visit by Mamdouh Mawafi, the new chief of Egyptian intelligence, to Damascus last month conveyed a "message of friendship."

"It is due to this visit and the statement made by Minister El-Arabi – during a recent meeting of the Arab League – that Cairo wants to turn a new page with Damascus that we managed to work smoothly to release the young Egyptian men who were recently arrested here," said a Damascus-based Egyptian diplomat.

According to this same diplomat, there would have been much more positive signs of "resumption of the traditional good relations between the two countries" – had it not been to the "political developments" in Syria.

Egyptian-Syrian relations have gone through many ups and downs over the past six decades, but in the last five years they hit an unprecedented low due to the frostiness between toppled president Hosni Mubarak and Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

On another eastern front, Egypt is set to go ahead with a previously planned upgrade of relations with Iraq. In May, the joint Egyptian-Iraqi Committee will convene in Baghdad at the level of foreign ministers. A day or two later in the northern Iraqi town of Erbile, a new Egyptian consulate will be inaugurated by El-Arabi.

These two events are planned to coincide with the scheduled Arab summit in Baghdad on 11 May. "But even if the summit is delayed, we will still go ahead with this plan," said an Egyptian diplomat.  

Regaining its central position in the Arab world and across the Middle East is Egypt’s top diplomatic priority. The focus now is set on the Mashreq region and Iran but, as foreign ministry sources insist, the Maghrab is also a priority and so is Turkey.

As for relations with Israel, Egyptian diplomats maintain it will remain more or less the same, but with one change in tone. "The immediate willingness of Egypt to accommodate Israeli concerns and demands out of the wish to impress the US is, however, off the table," says a senior Egyptian diplomat. He added that Egypt’s decision to minimize the restrictions imposed on the operation of the Rafah border crossing, the only non-Israeli controlled access for Gaza to the outer world, is promoted by this new approach.

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