Egypt-Iran rapprochement: Prospects and challenges

Dina Samir, Thursday 30 Aug 2012

The strained Egypt-Iran relationship has long been marked by pragmatism by both sides. But with President Morsi gearing up to visit Tehran, how far will the Brotherhood go to open a new chapter with the Islamic Republic?


President Mohamed Morsi is heading to Iran on Thursday for a four hours visit to attend the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit in Tehran, in a move that signifies a diplomatic shift in the history of Egypt-Iran relations and that could see the restoration of ties between the two countries.

Despite the fact that there is no clear Egyptian policy on the issue, the potential for future Iran-Egypt relations is there, Elizabeth Iskander, research fellow at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies, said.

Mustafa Ellabbad, director of Al-Sharq Centre for Regional and Strategic Studies, said that President Morsi’s visit to Tehran was an important step for widening Egypt's room for manoeuvre and challenging attempts by the Gulf states to blackmail the country through promises of conditional financial aid.

The visit will also be central to mediating a solution to the Syria crisis that cannot be reached without ties with Iran, which is a stumbling block on the path to resolution because of its support for the Syrian regime, Ellabbad explained.

Since the downfall of the Mubarak regime early last year, Iranian officials have expressed enthusiasm over the prospect of restarting relations with Egypt.

"Cooperation between the two countries – especially in the political sphere – will contribute to stability, security and peace in the region," Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said at a recent press conference in Doha. Furthermore, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad congratulated Morsi for winning Egypt's first post-Mubarak presidential election earlier this year, noting that the two countries shared a "cultural heritage."

Signalling optimism in the wake of Mubarak’s ouster, Iran requested permission to allow two of its warships to pass through Egypt's Suez Canal, the first passage of Iranian naval vessels through the strategic waterway since 1979. The Egyptian government agreed on the condition that the vessels did not contain "military equipment, nuclear materials or chemicals," the BBC reported at the time.

Furthermore, earlier this month, an Iranian delegation led by Alaeddin Boroujerdi, chairman of the Iranian parliament's national security and foreign policy committee, met in Cairo with a handful of Egyptian officials, including former FM and Arab League chief Nabil al Arabi.

Some observers believe it is inevitable that Egypt will open a new chapter with Iran under a Muslim Brotherhood presidency. Throughout its 80-year history, the Brotherhood has maintained a relationship with Iran, Ellabbad noted. For example, the Brotherhood's Yousef Nada mediated talks between the warring sides during the bloody Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.

"The Muslim Brotherhood has sought to combat sectarianism, put the Shiite-Sunni conflict aside and create a united Muslim front – even if that includes Iran," read an article published on Ikhwanweb, the Muslim Brotherhood's official English-language website, explaining that Mubarak had perceived the rising Shiite tide in the region as threat to his power.

Therefore, the article asserts, Egypt's Mubarak-era government and state media launched a campaign against Shiism and Shiite symbols. "Under the influence of the tolerant Brotherhood, Egyptians are more comfortable with Shiite Islam than other Sunnis in other Arab countries," the article states.

Despite the religious and ideological differences between the two countries, "pragmatism has often been the order of the day for both Iranian and Egyptian foreign policy," Iskander noted. For example, Iran has supported both Palestinian resistance faction Hamas, a Sunni-Muslim offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Lebanese Shiite resistance group Hezbollah. What's more, Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei vocally supported Egypt's January 25 Revolution, which he described as an "Islamic revolution."

The Muslim Brotherhood, for its part, has been cautious not to overstate the future of Egypt-Iran ties in official statements. Brotherhood spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan recently told Egypt's Al-Ahram newspaper that Morsi’s Iran visit came within the framework of the NAM summit and should not be interpreted as an indication of a close future partnership with the Islamic Republic.

Morsi’s visit to Tehran comes after decades of deteriorating relations between the two countries since Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Iran denounced late Egyptian president Anwar El-Sadat’s peace deal with Israel in 1979. Ayatollah Khomeini, who led Iran's Islamic Revolution, labelled El-Sadat’s decision as "treason against Islam," calling on the Egyptian people to overthrow the El-Sadat regime.

Iran was further alienated when El-Sadat permitted the overthrown shah of Iran and his family to take refuge in Cairo following Iran's revolution. Egypt, meanwhile, was likewise infuriated over Iran’s decision to name a Tehran street after Khaled El-Islambouli, the man who allegedly assassinated El-Sadat in 1981.

Under the Mubarak regime, Egypt and Iran maintained thorny relations, despite having nominal economic ties. Hosni Mubarak considered Iran a threat to regional stability and Egyptian national security due to Iranian support for resistance groups Hamas and Hezbollah.

Egypt-Iran tensions were further inflamed in 2009 when Egyptian officials arrested 25 members of Hezbollah for allegedly plotting to attack vessels passing through the Suez Canal, bomb Egyptian tourist sites, and smuggle weapons to militants in the Gaza Strip.

Looking at the future of the Iran-Egypt relations, Iskander believes they will depend on a number of factors: the development of Egypt's foreign policy, Cairo's relations with the US and Israel, and whether Iran perceives its regional interests as including closer ties with Egypt.

Ellabbad, for his part, believes Tehran has a strong interest in restoring relations with Cairo, as Egypt is considered a pillar of the Arab world and North Africa. Iran also needs to win a regional ally in light of its tense relationship with the Gulf States and deteriorating relationship with Turkey. It also wants to maintain access to Egypt’s strategic Suez Canal.

Ellabbad also notes the importance of not overestimating the potential for Iran-Egypt ties, explaining that Iran cannot serve as "strategic partner" to Egypt since strategic partnerships require harmonious political systems and common goals and values, which do not appear to be the case in this instance.

"Iran-Egypt relations might have a new framework and new terminology while largely remaining the same," he said. "Egypt might play new roles, but the quality of these roles will be bridled by Egypt’s strategic partnerships with Saudi Arabia, the US and Israel." 

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