When I was the director of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies (ACPSS) in the mid-1990s, the German Friedrich Naumann Stiftung foundation conveyed to me that it would be willing to facilitate an Egyptian-Iranian dialogue between ACPSS and the Centre for Political and International Studies at the Iranian Foreign Ministry. It was a difficult decision, not only because Egyptian-Iranian relations were tense but also because the Iranian centre essentially represented the government, while we only represented ourselves, even after necessary consultations, especially on issues of national security.
I was very eager for dialogue not because I believed the Iranian revolution was benign but because I believe the Chinese proverb: Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry was very interested in dialogue also, while the security agencies —despite their concerns about Iranian policies, especially that Iran gives passage to Egyptian terrorists operating in Afghanistan —did not object to the ACPSS doing its work as part of civil society.
Over the next four years, a dialogue took place between the two centres. We took the matter very seriously and ACPSS issued a specialised publication entitled Iranian Excerpts, which directly quoted Persian sources. There were also four joint seminars that were published in a book. My enthusiasm for dialogue made me think of expanding it to include Turkey, and a meeting in Alexandria took place between three think tanks to create a dialogue circuit between Cairo, Tehran and Ankara, who represent key regional powers with their individual perspectives and visions on regional issues.
This period was one of relative congeniality by President Mohamed Khatami; there was great enthusiasm for dialogue and restoring diplomatic relations by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry and caution by security agencies, rooted in threats to Egypt’s national security. Egyptian public opinion was keen, especially among experts, on establishing relations between the two states. Some on the Egyptian dialogue team even advocated creating an alliance between the two countries.
But there were concerns during dialogue, however, since much focus was understandably put on Egypt’s fatal mistake of signing a peace agreement with Israel. While this was plausible, criticism of inter-Arab relations was puzzling, as were attempts to separate Egypt from the rest of the Arab world as the “civilised” nation. Iran was also naturally very worried about the special relationship between Egypt and the US.
This was the disconcerting side of the dialogue, but it was reassuring and worthwhile to meet the Iranian people themselves, where we found that Egypt was highly regarded. We also found other circles in Tehran who had other outlooks, whether regarding relations with the Arabs, Israel or the US. We felt that this opportunity while President Khatami was still in power would end soon after his last year in office. Once Ahmadinejad came to power, dialogue ground to a halt.
The reason I am writing about this is because there’s a lot of talk these days about an Egyptian-Iranian dialogue to restore relations between Tehran and Cairo. I expect that the return of Egyptian Afghans who live in Iran will manifest itself as one of the transformations in relations between the two sides. I also believe that foreign policy reflects domestic conditions in one way or another. Now that the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups and forces have a more prominent role on the Egyptian political arena, it is only logical that one of their constant foreign policy demands is met: good relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
A country’s foreign policy is a series of compromises. While relations with Iran would be a public declaration of Egypt’s independent foreign policy after the revolution and in response to domestic conditions, the price for this will be high. There is no doubt that Egypt’s overtures to Iran are of great concern to Arab Gulf states who view Tehran not as a friendly or neighbouring state with which they can cooperate, but as hostile. This is especially pertinent after Gulf Cooperation Council states interceded to thwart a revolution in Bahrain in what seemed to be an indirect conflict between Gulf States and their powerful neighbour, as well as an ideological battle between Sunnis and Shias. Once Iraq is added to the equation, Iran appears to have a superior strategic position and cannot be cozied up to without paying a price, perhaps a very high one on other issues.
It is not a matter of revolutionary sentiments or even creating alliances in the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is directly related to Egypt’s supreme interests in the region according to the Egyptian revolution —whether or not there is a revolution in Egypt. The Egyptian government cannot seek $10 billion in grants from the West and Arab states to overcome difficult economic conditions and at the same time pursue close relations with Iran. These Arab and Western states possess the investment, loans and grants. More prominently are the relations with other rich states in Europe and Asia that contribute, invest, provide loans and grants, and are main players in international financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). At the same time, these countries are where the majority of Egyptian expatriates are, and they are one of the main revenue sources for Egypt.
This is more than just diplomatic ties or friendly overtures; it is a matter of Egypt’s strategic interests. Cairo must decide whether it wants to be the epicentre of revolution in the region and progress towards democracy and civil society, or if it wants to safeguard Egypt’s strategic interests whether its revolution is democratic or not.
Egypt’s democratic revolutionary state undoubtedly puts Egypt at odds with undemocratic and non-civic Iran, and strategic conditions also contrast the interests of both sides. It is not a matter of whether Egypt wants to have full diplomatic ties with Iran, but about the nature of the relationship between the two and whether it will cause contradictions for Egypt that it would not be able to handle at this point in time. On this, foreign policy is too critical to be left in the hands of diplomats alone —especially ones who suddenly found themselves centre stage dazzled by the lights and unable to see vital political, economic and strategic realities.