Why should we care whether Iran has a nuclear program? Why should we concern ourselves with accusations that Iran’s presidential elections were rigged, that it is attempting to impose its agenda on Iraq, or that the United States and Israel are planning military strikes against it? Indeed, the Egyptian media treats events in Iran with seeming indifference, overlooking the impacts they could potentially have on us. Instead of taking heed of important developments, our dismissive news coverage continues to gloat, even as a strike against Iran looms close on the horizon. Why is that?
The common responses to these questions are of a similar nature: Egypt and Iran do not have full diplomatic ties, a massive geographic expanse separates us, Iran is a Shiite nation vastly different from our own, it is competing with us for influence in the Gulf, and so forth. Therefore, we rationalize, what goes on in Iran need not concern us.
Reasoning of this sort is entirely in line with Egypt’s political system, whose diplomatic relations with an influential country like Iran are generally characterized by underestimation and disregard. In Egypt’s official political discourse, Iran is a source of unrest, instability, and terror.
There are many things the two countries hold in common dating back decades, before both underwent revolutions. There are also intensive ongoing efforts by Egyptian and Iranian intellectuals to bridge the gaps between their societies and lay the basis for rapprochement between Sunnis and Shiites. These efforts date back to 1948, when Iranian Imam Mohamed Taqey El-Ghomi established the Centre for the Rapprochement of Islamic Sects in Cairo. The founding members included Sheikh Mahmoud Shaltout, who later became the Sheikh of Al-Azhar.
However, these facts are marginal in the face of two central questions: how do states go about building foreign relations and why should Iran interests us?
Political scientists maintain that in the field of international relations, geographic proximity has declined in its importance, arguing that, nowadays, events occurring in one state can have a great influence on the international community as a whole. The natural disaster in Southeast Asia, for example, had economic and environmental repercussions in the United States. Furthermore, according to the realist school of international relations, there is no such thing as either permanent friendships or animosities between countries – only permanent interests.
States do not determine their relationships with other states based on similarities, but rather, on interests they perceive to share. States also band together when faced with common ideological, environmental or political threats. This point is key to understanding the global alliance against terrorism, the collective efforts to fight global warming and the growing anti-immigrant movement in Europe's Right. Such alliances bring together states that one would hardly imagine cooperating considering their ideological differences or economic disparities. However, such states realize that it is in their interest to cooperate on specific issues.
Can we speak of any shared interests between Egypt and Iran that would allow us to establish relations? The truth of the matter is that it is against Egypt’s national interest not to have relations with another state when the two have shared interests.
The logical question remains, why does Iran interest us? The answer lies in the fact that Iran is the primary player in the region, imposing its agenda on Iraq as well as on the US, making the latter incapable of achieving a political settlement without paying heed to Iranian interests. Furthermore, it makes little sense for a nation the size of Egypt to neglect an equally powerful nation such as Iran at a time when the Egyptian leadership stands firm on its desire to preserve its interests in the Gulf and in other parts of the world. Iran is also an extension to the Islamic civilization in the Arab region. It can thus play an important role in defending the often-attacked Islamic cultural and religious heritage of the Islamic world which we both belong to.
Unfortunately, the Egyptian leadership agrees with the US administration that Iran is a threat to international peace and stability by its nuclear programme, rhetoric, and stance against a Middle East peace settlement. Egypt is also conditioning the restoration of relations with Iran on issues that does not reflect the crux of disputes between both countries.
The hope then lies in the attempts of Egyptian intellectuals to convince the leadership that normalizing relations with Iran does not necessarily need a full consent to its regional and international agenda. This is not realistic when it comes to foreign relations among nations. One good example is Egypt’s relations with the US which is often depicted as strategic despite many exchanged criticism in different issues.
The writer is professor of political science at Cairo University.