When they were friends: Egypt and Iran

Holly Dagres , Monday 4 Feb 2013

Iranian President Ahmadinejad's visit to Cairo, the first by an Iranian head of state in decades, may herald the long awaited restoration of historically close ties between the two nations

On Tuesday, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be the first Iranian president in decades to visit Egypt in order to attend a summit on the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Cairo. This has sparked the usual outrage amongst groups like the ultra-conservative Salafists, the Egyptian branch of Wahhabism that is practiced in Saudi Arabia.

Last August, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi made an equally historic move -- that angered many in Egypt -- when he visited Iran to attend the Non-Alignment Movement (NAM) Summit.

 Although Ahmadinejad is known for controversy, it was Morsi who stirred up some when he used notable Sunni rhetoric and attacked the Iranian-backed Syrian regime. The Iranians added to it by ‘mistranslating’ the Egyptian President’s speech by replacing “Syria” with “Bahrain” and “Arab Awakening” with “Islamic Awakening”.

Given Ahmadinejad’s history of altercations, there is no telling what the Iranian President will have in store while in Cairo, although it is for certain that his speech will have Shia elements in it to the discomfort of the Sunni-dominated OIC.

But before Egyptian and Iranian waged speech battles, there was a time these two countries shared profound relations, dating back to the time of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and his father Reza Shah, and even further to the time of the Persian Empire.

The Shah’s first wife, Princess Fawzia of Egypt, was sister to the last reigning monarch of Egypt, King Farouk I, before the Free Officers Coup in 1952 ended monarchy in Egypt. The two had a daughter together, Princess Shahnaz of Iran (Many Iranians, as well as Egyptians do not know of her existence), but got divorced shortly after her birth due to Fawzia’s unhappiness.

However, even after his divorce, the Shah’s regime continued to have relations with the Arab Republic of Egypt, albeit being a great antagonist of Gamal Abdel Nasser over Iran’s controversial relations with Israel, and Nasser’s admiration of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and his nationalist policies. [It is often said that Nasser’s nationalization’s of the Suez Canal was inspired by Dr. Mossadegh’s nationalization of Iran’s oil industry]. Ironically, Iran quietly had diplomatic relations with the Jewish State by having a secret Israeli Embassy in Tehran, while working closely with Mossad to train Iran’s intelligence agency and security apparatus, the SAVAK.

It was the personal friendship between Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and Anwar al-Sadat, as well as Sadat’s pro-U.S. policies, that really brought the two nations close. When the Shah passed away from cancer in July 1980 Egypt, the last place he had been exiled to, was the only country willing to take his body for burial. Ever since, the Shah has been buried in the same mosque as his former-in-laws, King Fouad and King Farouk I, at al-Refa’i in Cairo.

The Herald Tribute called Sadat, “The only world leader to stand by the Shah during 18 months of sickness and scorn,” from the time he left Iran in January 1979 to July 1980, when he passed away.

The relations deteriorated after the Islamic Revolution in February 1979 when Iran, discontent with Sadat’s closes ties to the Shah and his peace with Israel through the Camp David Accords, named a street after Sadat’s assassin, Khalid Islambouli who killed him in 1981.

The naming became an open wound in the Egypt-Iran relations, as well as one of the excuses for Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak to back away from relations with Iran.

Ayatollah Khomeini’s support for Islamic movements in Palestine and Lebanon, in addition to his rhetoric, was more reason for relations between the two nations to fall apart.

During the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, Egypt backed Iraq and reportedly provided Saddam Hussein’s regime with $5 five billion in aid. After the war, in order to counter the Islamic Republic, a “Sunni-Arab bulwark”-- Egypt -- was created in the 1990s to counter what was believed to be Iran’s export of Shi’ism in the region.

During the administration of former President Mohammad Khatami, the name of the street was finally changed in 2004 to “Intifada”. Informally, Egypt and Iran always kept their relationships with Interest Sections in both countries. Although Iran’s consulate in Cairo has repeatedly spoken of the Islamic Republic’s desire for having high diplomatic relations with Egypt, but that has not yet happened due to the “Shia Scare”.

The idea behind the “Shia Scare” is that Iran has a vested interest in exporting the Islamic Revolution and spreading Shia Islam to countries like Egypt. This was the case during the 1980s, in which the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Qods Force specialized in, helping Hezbollah emerge in Lebanon.

Today, however, this is mostly propaganda spewed by the Saudis and neighboring Gulf States to deter its enemy across the Persian Gulf. By doing so, Saudi Arabia helps prevent the reemergence of Egyptian-Iranian relations and keep Iran at bay. The advocacy has, thus far, worked, but it seems more evident that Egypt and Iran may become friends in the not too distant future, to the fears of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States.

Despite the fact there are no formal relations between the countries, both Egyptians and Iranians alike dream to visit one another’s country for their profound histories. This dream may no longer be far-fetched with the Muslim Brotherhood’s President Mohamed Morsi in the picture. Rumor began to circulate has it that the Brotherhood is interested in re-starting full diplomatic relations with Iran, according to an article published last June by the Iranian state media. Morsi has denied the allegations, although the Muslim Brotherhood and the Iranian regime share a history of relations and similarities between the Brotherhood and proponents of Khomeinism than commonly known.

Whether Sunni Islamic movements such as the Salafis and Gulf States like it or not, rapprochement between Iran and Egypt is possible due to a deeply shared history. But with Egypt being pulled in different directions post-January 25th and a profound Gulf influence, there is no telling when the old allies will rekindle relations officially again.

 Holly Dagres, an Iranian American, is an analyst and commentator on Middle East affairs. Currently living in Egypt, she is a researcher at the Cairo Review of Global Affairs and pursuing a master’s degree in political science at the American University in Cairo.

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