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Iran-Egypt Rapprochement: Compulsions and Realities

Col Rajeev Agarwal is Assistant Director (Admin). Click here for detailed profile.
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  • March 08, 2013

    During his 7 February 2013 visit to Cairo to attend the OIC Summit, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called on Egypt to form a strategic alliance with Iran. A few days earlier, on 4 February, he had expressed his optimism about the visit and relations with Egypt by saying: “The political geography of the region will undergo a major change if Egypt and Iran take a common stance on the Palestinian cause”. Ahmadinejad’s February 2013 visit was the first by an Iranian President to Egypt in 33 years. In August 2012, Egyptian President Morsi had visited Iran to attend the NAM summit, again an unprecedented event in the recent history of these two regional power houses. In recent times and especially since the overthrow of President Mubarak in February 2011, there have been frequent attempts by both countries to publicly acknowledge each other’s great potential and reach out towards each other in an attempt at forging a new relationship.

    Such events and visits could not be even thought off two years ago between these two countries which had broken all bilateral diplomatic ties in the wake of Iran’s Islamic Revolution and the signing of the Camp David peace accord between Egypt and Israel. The Egypt-Iran relationship was further damaged when Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat granted asylum to the deposed Iranian shah, Mohammad-Reza Pahlavi, who was also later given a state funeral in Cairo in 1980. As if to return the favour, Iran had honoured Khaled Islambouli, the assassin who killed Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981, and named a street after him and erected a 10-metre-high mural in Tehran's business district.

    Arab Spring and its Effects

    The Arab uprisings in 2011 and their effect on Egypt leading to the ouster of Mubarak broke this spell of hostile ties. While Iran welcomed the revolutions calling them the ‘Islamic Awakening’, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, taking to active politics for the first time, found able support from Iran. Iran lost no time in recognizing the new regime in Egypt and saw it as a strategic opportunity to cultivate good relations with a powerful player in a regional environment where Iran found itself by and large isolated by the GCC and US-led sanctions because of its nuclear programme.

    Egypt responded symbolically to this recognition from Iran very early into the revolution, when it permitted two Iranian warships to cross the Suez Canal in February 2011. In his maiden speech at the UN General Assembly on 24 September 2012, President Morsi voiced his support for Palestinian nationhood and called it a global shame that the Palestinians still don’t have their own country. He also called upon Israel to join the NPT and professed that there cannot be two different standards on the nuclear issue with respect to Iran and Israel. Both these statements were to the obvious liking of Iran. The Gaza conflict of November 2012 brought the two countries together when they both announced total support for the Palestinians and denounced Israel as well as the international community for inaction against Israel.

    The rapprochement between Iran and Egypt has, however, not been entirely smooth. Along the short recent journey in discovery of friendly relations, both have hit roadblocks which are not only ideological in nature but also illustrate their individual compulsions, conflicting national interests and complex regional dynamics. While Egypt is trying to reconstruct its political and economic framework and re-emerge as a regional power, Iran, isolated and cut off due to sanctions, is desperately looking for strategic partners in the region. The success of this relationship would thus depend upon how the two countries are able to navigate through various contradictions and interests.

    Egyptian Compulsions, Challenges and Options

    Egypt faces multiple challenges, both domestically and in the region. Two years after the revolution, there is still no sign of political stability. Parliament was dissolved in June 2012 by the Constitutional Courts; the new draft constitution barely escaped nullification and was put to a referendum in December 2012 where it was only passed with a thin majority. Parliamentary elections are due in April 2013, but there is already massive opposition against President Morsi. A number of Egyptians have expressed concerns about the growing Iranian influence and fears of a political system modelled after Iran’s Velayat-e-Faqih system. Increasing powers to the Muslim Brotherhood as reflected in the new draft constitution and the fear of Morsi turning into another dictator compound the uncertainty and lack of faith in the forthcoming elections. Economically, Egypt is in a bad shape. It is heavily dependent on loans from the IMF, US and Arab world. Closer relations with Iran could come in the way of obtaining these loans.
    Even ideologically, Iran-Egypt relations face challenges:

    • Egypt is a Sunni Muslim country and is led by the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist and Sunni political party. Iran, on the other hand, is overwhelmingly Shiite Muslim. Notwithstanding the Iranian regime’s current affinity with the Muslim Brotherhood, there are deep-rooted ideological differences between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
    • The ongoing war in Syria is another issue of conflict. The Islamist government of the Muslim Brotherhood supports the people’s revolution against President Bashar Assad, has publicly denounced the Assad regime and called for its ouster. Iran, on the other hand, has expressed unflinching support for its strategic ally, Syria, and is providing all support to ensure the Assad government’s survival.
    • While Egypt finds ideological and religious affinity with the Gulf region, Iran-Gulf relations are at their worst and could become a restricting factor in Iran-Egypt relations. The problem is compounded since Egypt looks forward to massive economic aid from the region, especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have already announced multibillion dollar aid to Egypt. In fact, Saudi Arabia backed out of a ‘Peace Quartet’ formed on the initiative of the Egyptian President to help solve the Syrian crisis because Iran was one of the members apart from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
    • Even during President Ahmadinejad’s visit to Cairo in February 2013, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, head of Cairo's historic al-Azhar Mosque and University, urged Iran to refrain from interfering in Gulf Arab states, to recognize Bahrain as a "sisterly Arab nation" and rejected the extension of Shiite Muslim influence in Sunni countries, a clear rebuke to Iran.

    Iran’s Standpoint

    Iran sees its developing relations with Egypt as a win-win situation. Its nuclear programme has left it isolated and the sanctions are hurting its economy badly. In such a scenario, Egypt could provide the support Iran is looking for. During the recent visit by Ahmadinejad to Cairo, he offered a ‘credit line’ to Egypt to ramp up its economy. In addition, there were reports earlier, which were later denied by Egypt (perhaps under US pressure), that Egypt was willing to buy oil from Iran despite economic sanctions.

    In addition, Iran has other interests common with Egypt.

    • Both countries are strong supporters of the Palestine cause and therefore Iran sees potential support from Egypt against Israel, possibly to the extent of abrogating the Camp David Peace Treaty.
    • Common ground with Egypt opens up the possibility of the Sinai desert being used by Iran to get aid as well as arms and equipment across to Hamas in the Gaza Strip. In fact, during the November 2012 conflict, there were reports of Iran’s Fazr 3 and Fazr 5 rockets being fired into Israel.
    • Closer ties could potentially draw Egypt closer to Iran than Saudi Arabia, thus altering the regional power dynamics in Iran’s favour.
    • Even for Iran’s faltering economy, Egypt could provide solutions if it were to buy Iranian oil and permit Iranian investments in the Egyptian economy.
    • The signs of President Morsi in Egypt trying to formulate a foreign policy independent of US control could also be good news for Iran. Egypt’s statements on Israel as also recent ties with Iran could be an indication in this regard. How far Morsi is able to resist the US is another subject altogether.

    Way Forward

    Egypt under President Morsi has made serious attempts to send signals to the region and the world that it wants to break free from past restrictive relationships and emerge as a power of reckoning in the region. Improving relations with Iran, putting its peace treaty with Israel to the sword and attempting the role of a regional interlocutor (the Syrian peace process and brokering the ceasefire deal between Hamas and Israel in November 2012) are just some of them.

    However, given the domestic political situation as well as economic difficulties, it is unlikely, at least in the short and medium terms, that Egypt would be able to fend off pressures from the US and the Gulf monarchies to keep away from Iran. There is also the question of elections in both countries. Egypt is slated to hold parliamentary elections in April and Iran its Presidential elections in June 2013. Although there may not be a major change in policies post the elections in Iran due to the Supreme leader’s overwhelming influence, Morsi is in for testing times. The Muslim Brotherhood, which had swept the elections in 2011 riding the popular anti-Mubarak sentiment, has realized that governance can be tricky. Once in power, public opinion can get altered against the popular discourse in no time as is being seen presently in the ongoing riots in Egypt.

    Whatever might be the immediate and short term impact of geo-political developments in the region, Iran-Egypt relations would be a major factor in shaping the regional matrix in the coming times.