Tehran tries to avoid crisis in relations with Egypt

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 31 May 2011

As Tehran tries to underplay the expulsion of one of its diplomats from Cairo, an Egyptian analyst says the incident is a deliberate attempt to subvert Foreign Minister El-Arabi's plans to restore ties

Ali Akbar Saleh
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi

Iran is exercising self-control in reacting to an Egyptian decision to expel an Iranian diplomat from Cairo on charges of espionage. "There was a misunderstanding," said Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi as Kassem Husseini was finding his way back from Cairo to Tehran.

The statement of the top Iranian diplomat aimed to avoid a potential diplomatic crisis, according to an Iranian diplomat. "We understand that there is still no agreement within the decision-making quarters in Egypt on re-establishing full diplomatic relations with Iran and we see the incident of Husseini as an attempt by those who do not want relations with Iran to affect the decision-making," said the Iranian diplomat.

An Egyptian diplomat said that the statement made by Salehi, as well as the self-restraint exercised by Iran "is helpful indeed, but would not necessarily reverse the inevitable delay of restoration of full ambassadorial representation between the two countries".

Upon taking office, Foreign Minister Nabil El-Arabi had raised the level of expectations of an imminent restoration of full diplomatic ties between Egypt and Iran. This, however, was intercepted by the intelligence assessment that time is not yet right for such a move.

"The intelligence service has been in control of Egyptian-Iranian relations file for about a decade now, and its people are still obsessed with security concerns which they believe should prevent Egypt from upgrading the level of diplomatic representation with Iran," political scientist Hassan Nafiaa explained to Ahram Online.

Nafiaa told Al-Ahram Online he "has reasons to suspect that the entire Husseini episode was designed to undermine the attempt of El-Arabi to restore normal relations with Iran".

Husseini was arrested on Saturday evening and accused of espionage. On Sunday he was asked to leave the country. Monday he was out of Cairo on an Emirates flight, on his way back to Tehran.

The Husseini incident affected a planned public diplomacy initiative, according to which an Egyptian civil society delegation that was scheduled to fly to Tehran on a special flight that was expected to arrive to Cairo from the Iranian capital to take the non-governmental delegates and some retired diplomats for a few days of meeting with Tehran. Cairo declined to receive the Iranian flight and only some of the delegates left for Tehran, on a commercial Emirates flight a day later.

Retired Ambassador Rifaa Tahtawi who was to be a member of the delegation, told Al-Ahram Online that the Husseini incident "cast a shadow over the plans of the delegation and on the future exchange of delegations".

Tahtawi sounded sceptical about the chances of Iranian civil society delegations coming to Egypt soon, but he said that ultimately there is enough interest on both the Egyptian and Iranian sides to help go beyond this incident.

"I don’t think that the entire volume of Egyptian-Iranian relations could be reduced to one particular incident," Tahtawi said.

And for Nafaa, the fact that the deported diplomat was joined on the same flight by a number of the Egyptian journalists and intellectuals taking part in the public diplomacy initiative was a clear sign that there is enough public interest in Egypt to work towards normalizing relations with Iran.

"Those who try  to subvert and delay the restoration of relations between Iran and Egypt are influenced by the pressure exercised by the US, Israel and some Arab Gulf countries, all of which are worried about a rapprochement between Egypt and Iran," said Nafaa

Egypt has been trying to dispel Arab Gulf fears over the potential of restoring full ambassadorial relations with Iran.  

"Restoring relations with Iran and strengthening relations with Turkey are certainly in the interest of Egypt and Arab countries in view of the high political profiles of both Tehran and Ankara," said Nafaa. He added that Egypt should not hesitate over restoring relations with Iran.

"There could well be some security concerns, but the fact of the matter is that these security concerns could be addressed through the right channels," said Nafaa. He added, "It does not make sense that Egypt has full diplomatic relations with Israel and not with Iran".

El-Arabi had recently said, following a meeting with Salehi in Bali on the fringe of a Non-Aligned Movement conference, that relations will be restored once a parliament is elected in Egypt.

For Tahtawi, it is more likely that such a prospect will have to await the election of a new president and not just a new parliament.

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