Wait and see: Egypt's line on Iran

Dina Ezzat , Saturday 1 Aug 2015

Despite the nuclear deal that opens the way for Iran to return to the regional arena from relative isolation, Egypt will not be changing the status quo ante in its foreign policy, at least for ‘a while to come’

Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi and Iran's President Hassan Rouhani (Photo: Reuters)

“We are not planning to tell him anything in final terms. We will listen to what he has to say, and we will tell him that we are waiting to see how things unfold, and how Iran will manifest its intentions towards the region — and especially towards our strategic interests,” said an Egyptian diplomat.

He was answering a question by Ahram Online on the message Cairo is planning to put across to US Secretary of State John Kerry Sunday, during the session of a resumed Egyptian-US Strategic Dialogue that will be headed by foreign ministers on both sides.

According to this and other Egyptian and Cairo-based foreign diplomats, Egypt does not have — at least yet — a clear policy on the return of Iran to the regional arena, not to mention Iran itself.

Since the announcement of the framework agreement between Iran and the six negotiating Western states on Tehran's nuclear programme earlier this month, official Egyptian discourse on the matter has been ambiguous, with no clear-worded statement to welcome the agreement, whether unconditionally or otherwise, or to reject it.

“The trouble is that we have too many issues to worry about here. We have to avoid going as far as being identical with the highly sceptical Saudi position. But of course we cannot turn our back on the direct and clear Saudi demand to show caution over the return of Iran,” said one of several Egyptian diplomats who spoke to Ahram Online in the past three weeks on the matter.

He added that unlike Egypt the Saudis do have an embassy in Tehran, despite the many concerns that Riyadh shares with Cairo over Iran's alleged ambition to weaken the Saudi regime by augmenting the influence of Shia populations in Arab Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia itself. This, however, he reminded, was the stance of Cairo in the wake of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, "independently at the time from what the Saudis thought."

Under late President Anwar El-Sadat, who flirted with and then turned against the Islamists, Egypt was the only country to agree to host the Shah of Iran after he was ousted.

The Shah is buried in Al-Rifa’i Mosque in Cairo, and his burial place is an annual destination of his spouse ever since, under all rulers without exception.

Egyptian diplomats say that for the most part of the last 40 years, Egypt was not sure what it wanted with Iran — except for the short time where Sadat knew he was opposed to the new Islamic regime.

Most diplomats, retired as in service, agree that there were always ideas about opening up towards Tehran.

“I think it is a shame that Egypt, as a leading country in the region, failed to find a formula whereby it could have benefited from relations with Iran without having to put up with any of the perfectly legitimate security hazards. I think there was never a strategic decision to find this formula, and I think that during his rule, Mubarak did not want the headache of Iran,” said a former assistant foreign minister on condition of anonymity.

During the late 1990s, Mubarak was encouraged by then-Foreign Minister Amr Moussa to "explore what the Iranians have to offer."

“Mubarak was not keen. He thought he would give it a try. I remember when we were preparing for Moussa’s trip, I told [Moussa] that his trip to Tehran would not go very far because it was very clear that the Egyptian intelligence were very apprehensive, and we all knew that at the end of the day Mubarak listened to his security/military advisors rather than anyone else,” said a former cabinet member from that time.

In December 1997, Moussa arrived at the head of an Egyptian delegation to the 8th Summit of the OIC (then known as the Organisation of the Islamic Conference). Moussa was accorded more than a cordial welcome. His presence in Tehran made the headlines of Iranian papers and TV news bulletins.

Moussa was received gracefully by all top Iranian figures, including then President Mohamed Khatami who was, according to background statements of top Iranian officials at the time, very keen to resume full diplomatic ties with Egypt on the basis of mutual respect and non-interference.

“At the time, Moussa thought there was an opening and we at the foreign ministry thought alike. We saw considerable regional and economic benefits and we also thought that opening up to Iran, on a gradual basis, would strengthen our strategic cards vis-à-vis other regional powers, especially Israel,” added the retired assistant foreign minister.

However, the Moussa initiative was put on hold upon the recommendation of intelligence head Omar Suleiman, who firmly had the ear of President Mubarak and who was convinced that the security hazards that would come with opening up to Iran (especially in relation to feared support by Tehran for militant Islamic groups in Egypt) were much higher than any possible benefits, economic or strategic.

Moussa’s attempt to open a backdoor on the matter through the organisation of the D8, established in 1996 among eight developing countries from Africa and Asia, was faltered as well due to Mubarak’s continued security apprehensions.

“People tend to think that Mubarak was just appeasing the Saudi-American wish to keep pressure on Iran. But I could honestly and safely say that Mubarak did have genuine concern over Iran’s involvement in steering tension in the region,” said a former aide to Mubarak. “You could discuss today in retrospect whether he was right or wrong to think that it was impossible to reach a formula whereby we could have mutual benefits without really lifting the pressure on Iran,” he added.

At the time, the Iranians were knocking on every door and not giving up on Egypt. They kept reaching out and eventually Mubarak agreed to meet Khatami in Geneva on the sidelines of the World Information Summit, in December 2003.

Diplomats serving on the Iran desk at the Egyptian foreign ministry at the time say that they were not very influenced by hype on the anticipated resumption of full diplomatic relations between Cairo and Tehran, simply because — contrary to estimatations offered by Iranian officials and the Western media at the time — the Egyptian intelligence were telling them it will not happen.

Inevitably, there were better relations between Cairo and Tehran at the multinational level, with cooperation in anti-drug trafficking and the pursuit of a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction.

An Egyptian diplomat who served in New York said it was no longer an issue if he had coffee with an Iranian counterpart in the UN on the sidelines of sessions. “That was not the case before,” he said.

Following the 25 January Revolution, then much celebrated Foreign Minister Nabil El-Arabi (now Arab League secretary general) said there was "no reason” for Egypt not having full diplomatic relations with Iran when all Arab Gulf States, including the UAE, which accuses Iran of occupying three of its islands, had embassies in Tehran.

Again, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) interfered. El-Arabi said a member of his cabinet at the time (in spring of 2011) received a phone call from the head of SCAF, Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who asked him to stay away from the Iran file, saying it was being administered by Egyptian intelligence.

Under the rule of Mohamed Morsi, things seem to be changing with the head of state agreeing to personally lead the Egyptian delegation to the Non-Aligned Movement conference.

According to a former intelligence officer, “Morsi’s calculations were different. He went against the advice not just of Egyptian intelligence but also the head of the Egyptian diplomatic mission in Tehran at the time, who thought that the Iranians were not doing enough to deserve this visit. Morsi, however, was doing this to promote his regime and to gain international support — something he thought he needed in the face of reluctant state bodies that were not happy with his ascent to power after having overcome Ahmed Shafiq,” the retired military pilot and Mubarak’s last prime minister, during the January revolution.

Nonetheless, the former intelligence officer reminded, Morsi made sure that before going to Tehran he visited Saudi Arabia and announced there, in the presence of late King Abdullah, that Egypt and Saudi Arabia were the leaders of the Sunni camp in the region and that when in Tehran Morsi saw himself as representing Sunni power.

Today, sources in both the Egyptian foreign service and intelligence argue that Egypt, including the presidency, does not have an appetite for the Sunni-Shia fight.

They argue that the idea is alien to the Egyptian state and recall that when Mubarak, in 2005, made a pejorative reference to the Shia of the Arab world he was reminded by intelligence and the foreign ministry to steer clear of that path.

Recently, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, who had been quoted as saying harsh anti-Shia statements, decided to U-turn and call for Shia-Sunni dialogue under the umbrella of Al-Azhar.

“It is one thing for the state to be unwelcoming to the expansion of the followers of the Shia sect in Egypt, and to even think of this as unfortunate Iranian influence. It is another for the state to be caught up in the Shia-Sunni fight,” said a government official.

He hastened to add: “But we cannot turn our back to the Saudis whose support is still much needed and whose frustration with the choices of Egypt, regarding developments in Syria and Yemen for example, are unmasked.”

During recent high level Egyptian-Saudi consultations, first in Saudi Arabia between Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri and Saudi counterpart Adel Al-Jubair, and earlier this week between President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi and Saudi Crown Prince and Minister of Defence Mohamed Ben Salman, Egypt made clear that it has no intention of opening up too fast to keen Iranian overtures, nor being directly engaged in a Sunni-Shia quarrel.

Egyptian diplomats say that Cairo wants to keep it political, and to say that we expect Iran to refrain from destabiliaing states in the region (especially in the Gulf) and to stop supporting militant groups like Hamas and Hizbullah.

They add that putting pressure on Tehran is for Cairo not just about currying favour with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, both of which have been essential in securing the transition of power following the ouster of Morsi two years ago. It is also, they acknowledge, about Israel, whose support, according to some of them, has been “crucial” and “huge” in converting the position of the White House from one of being clearly unfavourable towards the new regime in Cairo, to being a lot more engaging.

This said, the same diplomats add that Cairo will meanwhile be "cooperating" with Tehran in support of the regime of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria — an ally of the Iranians and key to saving Syria from turning into another Libya, in the Egyptian perspective. Egypt will also cooperate with Iran on the war on the Islamic State (IS) militant group in Iraq and Syria. In fact, acknowledged one diplomat, “We are directly supporting the efforts of Turkey in its war on IS in Syria; even that we don’t agree with the ultimate objective of Ankara to remove Al-Assad.”

As for subtle Iranian gestures towards economic cooperation with Cairo, especially in energy production, informed government and business sources say it is too early yet to respond. Alike to Egyptian diplomatic sources, they say that cooperation with Iran on matters of mutual interest will be very much gradual.

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