Revolution warms Egyptian-Iranian relations

Ahmed Eleiba , Tuesday 5 Apr 2011

The Egyptian Revolution looks to have opened a new page in the traditionally fractious relations between Egypt and Iran, yet Tehran should be wary of misreading Egyptian post-Mubarak reality

Egyptian-Iranian relations

Iran led the way for regional powers seeking favour with the January 25 Revolution in Egypt. For Egyptian analysts, however, Tehran should take care with its rhetoric on the Egyptian revolution. Supreme Guide Ali Khameini’s famous speech was misplaced, according to Mohamed Abbas Nagi, an expert on Iran affairs at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. Khameini’s address, which was delivered in Arabic, stated that Islamic revival was coming to the region “born in the womb" of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. This statement was rejected by most political forces in Egypt, including the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists.

Major General Adel Suleiman, director of the Centre for Futuristic Studies in Cairo, noted that relations between Egypt and Iran had been linked to a variety of issues and not based on economic and historic ties.

“These relations remained very tense because of sharp differences between Cairo and Tehran regarding Iran’s positions and regional issues,” explains Suleiman. “There was no dialogue despite attempts to make contacts, but these were unsuccessful in building any significant ties or eliminating obstacles. On the contrary, these ties continued to deteriorate further.”

The chill between the two countries during Mubarak’s era was between the regimes, not the people. Disputes and a lack of trust blocked the path to progress. Failure was the dominant feature throughout, and efforts made by Iran’s Shura Council Chairman Ali Larijani in Cairo a year ago were wasted. During his visit, Larijani met with security, political and diplomatic officials as well as the former president.

Following the outbreak of the Egyptian revolution, Khameini’s speech did not help matters, according to Suleiman, since it seemed to promote a sectarian reading of that revolution, at odds with its true nature and spirit.

The turning point came, however,  when Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil El-Arabi declared in his first news conference that Egypt is willing to resume relations with Tehran, which it does not view as an enemy state but as a neighbouring country. El-Arabi referred to the historic ties between the two nations, pointing out that the people of Egypt have turned over a new leaf in their history. “Iran is an important country and we are bound by historic ties with it,” El-Arabi said. “It is a neighbour and we don’t consider it an enemy state.”

One month earlier, Cairo had allowed two Iranian warships to pass through the Suez Canal on the way to Syria, to Israel's chagrin.

El-Arabi’s statements were well received in Tehran. Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi welcomed the minister’s declaration that Egypt is ready to start afresh with Iran. The Israeli media picked up on these developments with the daily Yediot Ahronot asserting that El-Arabi’s declaration is proof that Cairo no longer considers Tehran an enemy. The Israeli newspaper went on to refer to El-Arabi’s background as a judge with the International Court of Justice (ICJ), highlighting his opposition to the Israeli Wall on the West Bank and his demand that Israel should be prosecuted for crimes against humanity.

Tarek Fahmy, an expert on Israeli affairs at the National Centre for Middle East Studies, makes the point that, for their part, relations between Egypt and Israel have turned around, and that no foreign nation will be able to dictate Egypt’s policies in the new era.

Egyptian analysts warn however that the change in rhetoric and tone between the two countries may not have many practical ramificants, at least in the short term. Iran’s position on Iraq, Tehran’s competition with Cairo for influence in Africa and its policies towards a number of Gulf States could cut short any honeymoon in relations.

Fahmy believes that Cairo’s attitude towards Iran has not significantly change, because stating Iran is not an enemy state is nothing new, while many political forces rejected what they described as Iranian attempts to interfere in the Egyptian revolution. Meanwhile, Salehi’s response to Cairo’s overtures was limited, indicating that words are not enough to fashion new relations and turn over a new leaf.

Suleiman agrees that El-Arabi’s statements are not groundbreaking. The problem isn’t the cultural influence of the Islamic state, but rather its perception of how the new forces in Egypt view Tehran. Iran attempted to promote the idea that Egypt was on the same path as the Iranian Revolution, which could result in an Islamic force taking the lead. On the contrary, however, the Egyptian revolution is the creation of a population which is composed of varying trends who unified their fate and goals. “Iran should reconsider its rhetoric towards Egypt,” the major general advised.

Regarding the passage of Iranian battleships through the Suez Canal, which many viewed as opening the door to new relations, an informed military source said that Tehran had never before asked to pass through the canal in the past three decades. He said that Egypt is obligated by international law and the Constantinople Treaty to grant passage to non-hostile ships.

The mood in Egyptian political and academic circles is in favour of improving relations with Iran, nevertheless. Experts who spoke to Ahram Online said they want Egypt and Iran to reconsider their ties, irrespective of any outside pressure. Abdullah El-Ashaal, former Egyptian assistant foreign minister, believes that the time has come to restore ties strained by the Mubarak regime. “Civilised nations can discuss differences together,” stated El-Ashaal, who formerly served as Egypt’s ambassador to the Organisation of the Islamic Concerence (OIC). “There are real problems between Cairo and Tehran which must be resolved. Iran has become a mature state which does not object to Egyptian policies when closer ties to benefit both sides can be launched.”

He argued that the problem does not lie in naming a street in Iran after El-Islamboli, the assassin of late president Anwar Sadat, because the crisis of relations has overcome this obstacle. Iran now holds other strings which are of interest – Hezbollah in Beirut and Hamas in the Gaza Strip – and Cairo must now adopt policies which distinguish between its interests on the one hand and allowing Washington to dictate its policies towards Tehran on the other.

El-Ashaal believes that Egypt must once again become a leader in a region which has been overrun by foreign interference, and that diplomatic representation should be upgraded with Tehran and that a dialogue between the two countries should be launched at a senior level. Egypt should embark on this dialogue, irrespective of objections by many Gulf States (led by Saudi Arabia) to an Iranian role in the region, El-Ashaal said.

Cairo signed an agreement with Tehran to begin 28 flights every week between the two countries as a way of promoting joint business, trade and tourism interests. Ali Nouri, a London-based Iranian academic, believes this volume to be quite high as even states close to Iran do not have as many flights. While Iran blessed the Egyptian revolution, it did not allow protests by its own reformers who have not gone as far as demanding regime change.

Diplomacy remains the major venue for Egyptian-Iranian relations for the timebeing, and this has yet to change by statements by both sides. According to Major General Sameh Seif El-Yazel, a security expert, What is certain, however, is the tone is changing and more time is needed to test the future of relations.

El-Yazel believes that today Cairo is beginning a new era in diplomacy and international relations, but progress will depend on the readiness of the other side to reciprocate for the change to be bear real fruit.

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