There has been considerable speculation of late regarding an Egyptian-Iranian rapprochement as part of the series of breakthroughs related to long-festering crises in the region. The Chinese-brokered agreement signed between Saudi Arabia and Iran in March to restore diplomatic relations and the invitation to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to attend the Arab Summit meeting in Jeddah in May are landmarks in this process.
Several Iranian statements have lent weight to such conjectures. During his meeting with Sultan of Oman Haitham bin Tarik last week, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was reported to have said that his country would welcome the return to full diplomatic relations with Cairo in a framework of “expanding the policies of good neighbourliness and the utilisation of the energies and capacities of the Islamic nations in a manner that benefits all peoples and states in the region.”
Iranian government Spokesman Ali Bahadri Jahromi also said that his government was ready to improve relations with Egypt.
Egypt has not reciprocated. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri said that “the current talk about the existence of an Egyptian-Iranian track is mere speculation that has no basis in fact.”
It appears that the speculation about a potential thaw between Cairo and Tehran rests on a commonly held assumption in the region that the Saudi position on Iran in recent years has acted as a restraint on Egypt’s policies towards Iran and that now that Riyadh’s position has changed, as revealed by the Chinese-brokered agreement, Egypt is free to set its own course on its relations with Iran.
However, as strong as the Egyptian-Saudi strategic relationship has become, especially since the great helping hand that Saudi Arabia lent Egypt at the time of the 2013 Revolution that overthrew Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt – a factor that Cairo has taken in account in many of its foreign policy decisions – it does not follow that a change in Riyadh’s attitude towards Iran will occasion an equivalent change in Cairo.
A range of factors influence a possible rapprochement between Egypt and Iran, with these having led Cairo to maintain a “wait and see” approach to offers on the part of Oman and Iraq over recent years to mediate between Cairo and Tehran. Above all, Cairo has yet to discern a fundamental change in the Iranian positions on a number of issues of importance to Egypt, some related to the nature of the bilateral relationship and others to Iranian policies towards the Arab region as a whole.
Iran has never responded positively on the number of contentious issues that arose between Cairo and Tehran in the talks between the two sides in the 1990s. Iran has named one of its main streets after the assassin who murdered former Egyptian president Anwar Al-Sadat, it has hosted individuals wanted by the security authorities in Cairo, and it has acted contrary to its commitment to safeguard the freedom of navigation in the Red Sea by supporting groups that threaten it.
Iran’s regional policy is diametrically opposed to Egypt’s regional vision. Tehran’s strategy rests on backing armed non-state actors in other countries, helping them to acquire influence in those countries and to form parallel military/security apparatuses that undermine and challenge the official military/security establishments.
Egypt believes in the need to safeguard the unity and centrality of the national security establishment as the backbone of the nation state. Iran promotes greater Turkish influence in the region as a means to counter Egypt’s and Saudi Arabia’s authentic regional weight, while Egypt and Saudi Arabia acknowledge their respective influence and oppose attempts to undermine it or replace it by Iranian or Turkish influence.
Iran is still set on exporting its model of a Shia theocratic state in various ways and guises. It has used its proxies towards this end, as well as investments and tourist activities of a sectarian nature. The Egyptian people expressed their opposition to that model when they overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood government, which sought to establish a Sunni edition of it, and championed the establishment of a modern democratic state anchored in the principle of full equality of all citizens regardless of religious and ethnic affiliation, as enshrined in the 2014 Constitution.
This is the type of state that informs Egypt’s policies towards a settlement of the conflicts in Yemen and Syria, in which Iran is an active party. That is why it would be hard for Egypt and Iran to find common ground between their respective approaches to resolving those conflicts.
Lastly, it is important to bear in mind that whenever there has been a thaw in Iranian-Saudi relations over the past decades, Iran has attempted to use Egypt as a kind of counterweight to Saudi Arabia in the framework of their competition over spheres of influence, one that will continue despite the March 2023 agreement. In Egypt’s view, any reconciliation and return to normal diplomatic relations must benefit Egypt in some way.
There is no reason for Egypt to avoid responding explicitly to the statements issuing from Iran about rapprochement or to continue the “wait and see” policy. However, what it does need to do is to forge new policies towards Iran. These should be governed by national security interests and other strategic concerns, including the need to maintain an appropriate balance in its relations with regional and international powers that are essential to safeguarding our national interests.
The writer is head of the Security Research Department at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and a visiting professor of political science at Cairo University.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 1 June, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.