The ebb and flow of Egyptian-Iranian relations

After decades of frosty relations between Egypt and Iran, the end of the Mubarak regime seems to open new opportunities for a rapprochement. Islamic political actors in both countries are at a forefront of such evolution, yet they can do little against enduring competition between both Middle-Eastern powers.
Chelsea L. Daymon
16 February 2012

When Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak came into power after the assassination of Anwar al-Sadat, Egypt dependably fell in line with United States interests in the region. Egypt became a U.S. ally in the Middle East who mediated for its partner and added its backing to U.S. initiatives in the region. In the wake of the Egyptian revolution, recent events between Egypt and Iran have pointed to a forging of renewed, diplomatic ties between the two countries. Egypt seems ready to start a new chapter on the international scene, significantly pointing towards a tendency to form interests independent of the United States while Iran seems ready to accept a new supporter in the Arab world. For the United States, this creates randomness in a region both erratic and strategically significant to its interests nevertheless; Egypt and Iran seem keen to form a new bond in the shifting landscape of the Middle East.

Egyptian and Iranian relations have historically been frosty ever since Iran severed ties with Egypt after President Anwar al-Sadat’s decision to sign the 1978 Camp David Accords with Israel and the 1979 formal signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. The Islamic Republic was further affronted when Egypt offered asylum to Iran’s deposed Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and his family. In May of that same year, Iran’s Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, condemned the peace treaty and declared it sedition against Islam. From this point onwards, diplomatic relations between the two countries officially ended in June 1979. Amid the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988, Egypt gave its support to Saddam Hussein further aggravating Iran by providing Iraq with an estimated five billion dollars in weapons. This arsenal included ammunition, tanks, small arms, and versions of the Soviet Scud B missile. During this period of unrest, on October 6, 1981, three years after Sadat signed the Camp David Accord he was assassinated during an annual military parade marking Egypt’s 1973 victory over Israel. In a mocking manner Iran proceeded to name a street in Tehran’s business district after Khaled Islambouli, the ringleader of the group responsible for killing the president. A mural of Islambouli was further insult to injury pushing communication between the two nations further apart. In 2004, during the presidency of Mohammad Kahatami and Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak there was an attempt to heal relations between the two countries and renew diplomatic ties. To begin this process, Cairo demanded that Khaled Islambouli Avenue be renamed. Tehran’s City Council conceded, agreeing to rename the notorious street to Intifada Avenue, after the Palestinian uprising against Israel. However, further restoration of ties between the nations simmered as time went by. 

Post-Mubarak rapprochement?

Since the fall of Hosni Mubarak, post-revolutionary Egypt seems keen to begin a new chapter in its relations with the Islamic Republic. In February 2011, shortly after Mubarak stepped down from office, Iran requested permission to transit two warships through the Suez Canal, the first passage of its kind since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Egyptian authorities agreed to the request under the conditions that the vessels had no military equipment, nuclear substances or chemicals on board. Iranian officials made it clear that the ships were traveling purely for training purposes.

In early April, further developments in the shift between Egyptian-Iranian relations took place when Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil al-Arabi stated that his country would witness a new phase in its ties with Iran. This sentiment was further supported by former deputy of the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, Abduallah al-Ashal. In an interview with the Iranian news agency Press TV, he stated that he was very optimistic about the restoration of diplomatic ties between Iran and Egypt. These remarks were welcomed by officials in Iran, echoing the desire to renew ties with its former adversary. Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, a member of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee of the Iranian Parliament (Majlis) regards the situation in post-revolutionary Egypt as having the possibility to strengthen ties between the two countries. He stressed that the remarks made by Egypt’s al-Arabi reflected the realities within the country for renewed affairs. It seems that it’s not only Egyptian officials who are interested in renewing ties. In mid April, after being released from prison Mr. Magdy Hussein, the leader of the banned, Islamist Labour Party, traveled to Iran to meet with Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, Secretary of the Supreme National Council Saeed Jalili, and Speaker of the Parliament Ali Larijani. During this visit they spoke of Egyptian-Iranian relations, ongoing revolutionary developments in the region, and Iran’s nuclear program. Hussein claimed that recent events in Egypt were inspired by the Islamic Revolution in Irantying in with his extremist ideology that seeks an Islamic state in Egypt and Islamic unity across borders.

However, this attitude is not reflective of all those vying for power within revolutionary Egypt today. In early February 2011, Khaled Hamza, editor in chief of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s official English website, criticized a statement made by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenai, who had claimed that the protests in Egypt were a sign of an Islamic Awakening stirred by the 1979 revolution. In Hamza’s view, Egypt’s revolution was not brought on by an Islamic Awakening and was not associated with one religion. Instead, it was a revolution for Egyptians who sought liberation from an indifferent regime that had plagued its people with poverty, abuse, unsanitary living conditions, and poor health care. This is a different stance taken by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood who back in 1979 openly sided with Khomeini’s revolutionary fervor and overthrow of the shah. Unlike the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood views Egypt’s recent uprising as a mass action removed from any Islamic group and thus incomparable with what took place in Iran during the late seventies.

Competition over prominence in the Middle-East

So what do the potential forging of new ties between Egypt and Iran mean? Only time will ultimately tell. In the first round of Egyptian elections that took place on November 28-29, 2011 Islamist parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood and ultra-conservative Salafi groups won close to two-thirds of the votes. These two parties dominated the second round of elections closing on December 15, with the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party saying it expected to win around 40 percent of the votes and the Salafi al-Nour Party claiming 35 percent. It is uncertain how these developments and further voting will effect recent Egyptian-Iranian relations. Iran is clearly expanding friendly associations within the Middle East and North Africa, partly due to the volatility of its number one ally, Syria. If the Assad regime falls, Iran will be left to fend for its own, in an already frigid Middle East. Iran could do well in gaining a powerful friend such as Egypt. This would greatly elevate Iran in its power play with the United States. It is still unclear what Egypt would gain from such a relationship. 

The Egyptian revolution has created a political situation where Egypt is increasingly siding with the Palestinians and distancing itself from Israel both publically and privately. Egypt’s involvement in the interim government deal between Fatah and Hamas in April 2011, points to Egypt establishing itself as a self-assured leader in the Arab world no longer under the United States wing. However, Egypt and Iran have divergent views on the Palestinian issue which could potentially cloud their ambitions towards friendship. Egypt seeks further negotiations in the region for a stable Palestine while Iran continues to provide arms and encourages resistance towards Israel.  On the other hand, Egypt is well aware of Iran's growing prominence in the Middle East, its influence on regional forces, including, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine, and Shi'ites in Iraq. However, the full significance of Egyptian-Iranian relations is yet to be revealed. In time, they will either fizzle or flourish in a dance of diplomatic dealings.

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