Is Egypt Really Warming Toward Iran?
Reports of a thaw in Egyptian-Iranian diplomatic ties has created a stir in the Middle East, particularly in Egypt and its neighbor, Israel. Indeed, even as Egypt struggles to iron out its own emerging political system after the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak, Cairo’s foreign policy is also undergoing a sea change. “If you look at Egypt over the last 20 years, it just hasn’t played a very serious role in the foreign affairs of the region,” says Gary Sick a Persian Gulf expert at Columbia University, who served on the National Security Council under three U.S. presidents. For decades, in fact, the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak acted as little more than a “foreign policy cardboard standup” to its powerful ally and benefactor, the United States. But all that is about to change, he says. “Many of the countries that now have new leaders are going to reset their foreign affairs,” Sick predicts. “And the United States is going to have to get used to that.”
For post-revolutionary Egypt’s new leaders and politicians, forging a new foreign policy means pushing back against much of what Mubarak stood for. That clearly includes Egypt’s perceived puppet-like status to the United States, Europe, and Israel. “Let us eat the way we want, dress the way we want. Let us organize ourselves the way we want to,” says Kamal Habib, a Salafi politician, who was jailed for a decade under Mubarak for his affiliation with a violent jihadist organization. “We don’t want to repeat the Mubarak-American relationship again.”
Habib’s opinion applies to more than just his Salafist cohorts. Many Egyptians want to hit the reset button on their country’s stance on Palestinian statehood, as well as its posture toward the Gaza Strip, where it has helped to enforce an Israeli-led blockade for four years. Most recently, it also includes re-thinking a decades-old enmity with Iran.
Earlier this month, Egypt’s new Foreign Minister Nabil al-Arabi called for a normalization of relations between the two countries. Tehran and Cairo cut off diplomatic ties following the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel and the Islamic Revolution in Iran, both of which occured in 1979. Earlier this week, reports filtered out that Iran had appointed an ambassador to Cairo, sparking a flurry of speculation on the future of the relationship. Both countries later denied that the step had been taken. But Egyptian state media reported that Iran’s foreign minister has been invited to visit Cairo. And on Thursday Iran’s state-run Press TV announced that Iranian tourism agencies had signed a deal with Egypt to facilitate tourism between the two countries.
For western policy-makers and the Israeli government, the newfound warmth has set off alarm bells. At the very least, they say, it’s not a positive sign for the countries seeking to isolate Iran in an effort to halt its suspected work to build nuclear weapons.
But it may not be a such bad sign either – at least as far as the U.S., Europe, and other countries in the Middle East are concerned. Other Arab states that have normalized relations with Iran, like Qatar and Oman, have proven useful intermediaries at times between the rogue republic and its western adversaries. In tandem with Brazil, Turkey, the largest non-Arab Muslim nation in the area, independently negotiated a nuclear agreement with Iran when Western efforts at coercion failed. (The agreement did not stick because Western officials declared that it did not meet conditions set by the U.N.) But, while Turkey’s success may have proven embarrassing to U.S. leadership because Washington wasn’t responsible for the deal, Sick says, “the opportunity to actually have a valuable interlocutor between the United States and Iran, I know from personal experience, was immensely useful.”
Whether Egypt aims to become an interlocutor is unclear, and perhaps even unlikely at this point. It is more likely that Egypt’s leaders want to set an agenda that’s independent from the U.S. and Europe. And just because Egypt is trying to regain some of the regional prominence that it enjoyed in the 1950s and 60s when it was a vocal leader of pan-Arab nationalism, doesn’t mean it’s going to be Iran’s new best friend either. “The new Middle East may end up being defined as it was in the past by that triangle of ancient states – Egypt, Turkey and Iran,” says Sick. “And I don’t think that they will necessarily become allies of each other. Rather they’re more likely to be rivals on many different issues.”
One of those issues is a lingering suspicion of Iran’s Shi’ite theocracy and Tehran’s ambitions to “export” its Islamic revolution. Most of the region is dominated by Sunni Muslims; and religious conservatives sometimes view the Shi’a brand of Islam practiced by Iran’s majority as heretical. The rise of a Shi’ite government in Iraq has put other Arab states on edge, and an Egypt friendly to Iran is likely to come under a lot of pressure from some of its Arab allies, particularly Saudi Arabia. Regional analysts also say that Arabs have a tendency to exaggerate fears of Iranian influence. “The really active days of exporting the revolution ended in about 1982,” says Sick. But psychologically, it may still represent a sizable obstacle to normalization of Egyptian-Iranian relations.
At the same time, it’s worth considering who’s really in power in post-Mubarak Egypt. Egypt’s revolutionaries may indeed start flexing their foreign policy muscles against Mubarak’s legacy, but the generals who are temporarily in control of the country may have little interest in bending back the old policies. Mubarak’s number two man, the intensely anti-Iran intelligence chief Omar Suleiman has been removed from power. But in his place is Mourad Mwafi, the former head of Egyptian military intelligence, and the governor of North Sinai who held a hard-line on Gaza and Iran-backed Hamas. “I don’t know what his politics are, but I think he has a very healthy and realistic sense of the threats that Egypt still faces,” says one Western diplomat in Cairo. “I think he is highly skeptical of Iranian intentions – not only the nuclear stuff, but Hamas and Hezbollah and other malign influences in the region. So I think they haven’t lost their antennae on these issues.”
Indeed, Iran may be eager for a new ally in an international community where it remains highly unpopular. Ambassadors may even be exchanged. But Egypt is likely to proceed with caution. At the end of the day, the Western official adds, Egypt’s stance on Iran may not be so threatening after all: “There is no intention at this point, I’m told, to immediately move toward changing the nature of the relationship. It’s not there yet. I think the security services still have some concerns.”