The resurgence of Egyptian-Iranian relations

Despite repeated Egyptian pledges that it will not seek a diplomatic rapprochement with Iran, new political opportunities have arisen on both sides which could render this option much more feasible.

Chelsea L. Daymon
30 August 2012

The election win of Mohamed Morsi on June 24, 2012 - Egypt’s first competitively elected president - caused a stir in international headlines as well as the foreign policy world. In the first three months of his presidency, Morsi has not been idle in his new role and has made it evident that there will be new policies developed for Egypt and new diplomatic friendships forged.

Morsi’s first official foreign visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on July 11, 2012 had the clear intention of securing bilateral associations between the two key players in the Middle East as well as safeguarding continued Saudi investment in Egypt. During his visit, Morsi stressed the great importance of sustained stability and security in the Gulf and Egypt’s priorities in developing relations in the region. In an interview with China’s Xinhua news agency, Amin Shalabi, director of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Relations commented that Morsi’s visit was a message showing Egypt's keenness to cooperate with Gulf countries, starting with Saudi Arabia, regardless of the changes that had taken place in the Egyptian presidency.

It seems that Egypt’s eagerness to develop Gulf relationships has recently extended towards Saudi Arabia’s Shiite neighbour, the Islamic Republic of Iran. Since the fall of Hosni Mubarak, a slow resurgence of Egyptian-Iranian relations has taken place. Post-revolutionary Egypt and the Islamic Republic have shown mutual progress towards a gradual reopening of interactions beginning in February 2011, when Egypt granted Iran permission to transit two warships through the Suez Canal. After this historic event, sentiments pointing toward renewed ties have floated between the two countries without actual steps being taken in that direction.

In recent weeks the news has broken that Morsi would be visiting Iran to attend the 16th summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) held in the Iranian capital of Tehran, the first visit of its kind by an Egyptian head of state since the Islamic revolution of 1979 and the severing of diplomatic ties between the two countries. During the summit Morsi will participate in the transfer of the NAM presidency which will pass from Egypt to Iran. In early August, an invitation to the NAM summit was delivered to Morsi by the Iranian Vice-President Hamed Baqai during his visit to Cairo. The Iranians hoped the newly elected Egyptian president would accept the request, and evidently he has.

Morsi’s visit to Iran has prompted a further wave of speculation regarding the re-establishment of diplomatic ties between the two countries. After years of relations fraught with animosity and bitterness Morsi’s visit to Iran may point to a new era in Egyptian-Iranian transactions. In an August 21st interview published in Egypt’s state-run Al-Ahram newspaper, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said that Tehran was eager to establish relations of “friendship and brotherhood” with Cairo. “Egypt is the cornerstone of the region and has a special stature in the Arab and Muslim countries … and we want relations of friendship and brotherhood with it,” Salehi stated, elaborating that Tehran hoped to restore “normal” relations with Cairo.

Egypt’s responses have tended to be more on the cautious side. In a recent interview with the Saudi-owned newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Morsi’s spokesman Yasser Ali said that the matter of resurrecting diplomatic ties was out of the question at this stage, emphasising Egypt's hesitant approach to Iran, yet not completely eliminating the idea of a renewed relationship. Egypt’s caution stems from a historically strong antipathy toward Iran due to years of what it considered as personal affronts from the Islamic Republic. On the other hand, forging strong ties with Iran could mar its relationship with its western ally, the United States, potentially causing irreparable damage and the eradication of advantageous US aid to Egypt.

On August 26, it was reported by the Iranian state-run television station, Press TV, that Morsi, along with other heads of state would be visiting the Bushehr, Natanz, and Isfahan nuclear facitlites on the NAM conference's sidelines. Press TV quoted Mansour Haqiqatpour, member of Iran's Majlis Committee on National Security and Foreign Policy, as saying that the visit to the nuclear plants was, “in line with countering propaganda against the Islamic Republic and their baseless claims about Iran's attempts to obtain a nuclear program." Speaking with the Fars news agency on the same topic, Haqiqatpour commented that Iran and Egypt could switch on their joint activities in the nuclear field and Iran was ready to transfer its nuclear know-how and experience to Egypt.

This suggestion of joining forces is significant. In theory, if the Egyptians were to collaborate with Iran on the nuclear level it would create a major game changer in the Middle East. An Egyptian-Iranian nuclear partnership would produce a powerful union between a key player in the region; Egypt and Iran, a country with few friends in the Middle East and currently struggling with international pressures and rigorous sanctions. With its foremost ally Syria torn by civil war, Iran could benefit hugely from a new and powerful friend such as Egypt. Such a partnership would also herald a new twist in Egyptian foreign policy; breaking away from the desires of Egypt’s long-time partners - the United States and Israel - as well as their foreign policy interests.

The slow resurgence of Egyptian-Iranian relations points to an evolving Middle East where new alliances could create a stronger, more unified region which could potentially drive back western influences, replacing them with eastern authority. For US and Israeli policy, this would be a nightmare, limiting the two countries’ influences and power in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). On the other hand, the Gulf region could possibly benefit from a major Sunni country befriending a predominantly Shiite one. Tensions between the Sunni and Shiite divide are historically high. Its effects in the Gulf region have been witnessed in the Bahrain protests that began in mid-February 2011 and continue to this day, in which Bahrain’s underprivileged and disenfranchised Shiite majority has been calling to the ruling Sunni, al-Khalifa family for deep, political reform to the country's governmental structure. Saudi-Iranian relations have also been traditionally cold, due to the Sunni-Shiite divide: a major, predominantly Sunni player like Egypt befriending a principally Shiite country such as Iran could potentially forge a base for further Sunni-Shiite unity, changing the chessboard and paving the way for a more integrated Gulf in the future.

The NAM conference could in this way provide a good opportunity for further Iranian diplomacy to unfold. 120 member states make up the Non-Aligned Movement, a number of which are Muslim-based countries. Iran’s succession to the NAM presidency could provide it with a base for stronger associations between NAM members and a potential arena for intervention, weaving new diplomatic ties. Another possible outlet for Iranian diplomacy could be the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), an inter-governmental organization with a membership of 57 Muslim states spread over four continents. The Organization’s purpose is to be the collective voice of Muslim people, ensuring the safeguarding and protection of all interests regarding the Muslim world. The organization’s stated goal is to promote international peace and harmony among the people of the world. Iran is a member of the OIC and was the host of the OIC’s Seventh Session of the Islamic Conference of Tourism Ministries, held in Tehran in November 2010. Egypt is also a member of the OIC and if Egyptian-Iranian relations were to blossom, the two countries could potentially use this venue to reach out to further Muslim states, and again could conceivably enhance Islamic unity. The significance of both the OIC and the NAM conference are that they provide a neutral arena for MENA states, free of western influences and policy desires. At these venues, diplomatic relationships can be forged in an environment devoid of western pressures.

Morsi’s visit to Iran shows a great deal of independence, not only sending a message to the United States and Israel that Egypt is ready to forge its own foreign policies autonomous from theirs, but also letting the world know that the new Egypt views itself as a self-determining player on the international scene. Egypt is veering away significantly from the influences of its foreign allies. It will be interesting to see what new relationships Egypt builds in the coming year ,and if a rapprochement with Iran remains a valuable goal to pursue.

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