Post-Mubarak Egypt Inches Toward Iran

CAIRO — Based on several recent statements by Egyptian and Iranian officials, Cairo and Tehran appear closer than ever to restoring diplomatic ties following a 31-year hiatus.

“The Egyptian foreign minister and the Islamic Republic of Iran have announced their readiness to expand diplomatic relations between the two countries,” Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said on June 18.

Under the regime of ousted president Hosni Mubarak, Egypt — long considered a “strategic partner” by Washington — had rebuffed repeated Iranian overtures, often expressing downright hostility toward the Islamic republic. Under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), however, which has managed the nation’s affairs since Mubarak’s February departure, Cairo’s attitude toward Iran appears to have undergone a sea change.

“In Mubarak’s time, Egypt slavishly complied with U.S./Israeli policy in the region, a major component of which is the isolation of Iran,” Wahid Abdelmagid, political analyst at the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told IPS. “But since the revolution, Egypt’s official position vis-à-vis Iran has reversed course.”

The first sign of the apparent policy realignment came less than a week after Mubarak’s ouster, when the SCAF granted permission to two Iranian warships — for the first time in more than three decades —  to pass through Egypt’s Suez Canal into the Mediterranean Sea. At the time, Israeli officials described the move as “a provocation.”

Then, in early April, Nabil al-Arabi, Egypt’s first post-revolutionary foreign minister, declared that Cairo was ready to “turn a new page” with Iran. “The Egyptian and Iranian people,” he said, “deserve to have mutual relations reflecting their history and civilization.”

On May 25, al-Arabi met with Iran’s Salehi on the sidelines of a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in Bali, Indonesia, where the two men reportedly discussed the prospect of reactivated bilateral relations. Less than a week later, a 50-strong Egyptian delegation — made up of revolutionary activists, clergymen, and cultural figures — visited Tehran, where they, too, discussed with Iranian counterparts the possible resumption of ties.

“Since the revolution, there has been a marked increase in activity, both on the official and popular levels, between the two countries,” Ibrahim Mansour, an Egyptian political analyst, told IPS.

Iran, for its part, which had unequivocally supported Egypt’s Jan. 25 Revolution, has welcomed the new, friendlier climate. Salehi, describing the Egyptian delegation’s visit as “a step toward preparing the ground for improved relations,” said Iran was ready to resume relations with Egypt “as soon as possible.”

Iran severed diplomatic ties with Cairo in 1979 in the wake of Iran’s Islamic revolution, after former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David peace agreement with Israel. Cairo further alienated the nascent Islamic Republic later the same year by granting political asylum to deposed shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Relations remained hostile through much of the 1980s, when Egypt supported Saddam Hussein’s Iraq against revolutionary Iran in the two countries’ eight-year-long war of attrition. Today, Cairo remains the only Arab capital not to have formal relations with Tehran.

Over the last decade, Iran has frequently expressed its desire to restore ties with Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country. “If the Egyptian government was willing, we would open an embassy in Cairo the same day,” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in mid-2007.

But the Mubarak regime — taking its cue from Washington and Tel Aviv — repeatedly rebuffed such overtures, choosing instead to paint Iran as a “threat” to regional security. Egypt also cited Tehran’s Khaled Islambouli Street, named after one of Sadat’s alleged assassins, as an excuse to hold off on a formal rapprochement.

“Iran repeatedly signaled its desire to restore ties, but the Mubarak regime manufactured reasons to keep relations frozen,” said Mansour. “But all these excuses — including the street name — have now fallen by the wayside, along with the former regime.

“Now the only ones voicing objections to the notion of restored Egypt-Iran ties are the U.S. and Israel,” he added.

Politics aside, Mansour believes restored relations with Iran would prove beneficial for Egypt’s ailing economy. Along with activating bilateral trade, he said, such a move could give Egypt’s tourism sector —  which before the revolution had been a foreign-currency mainstay — a badly-needed shot in the arm.

“If relations were fully restored, a million Iranians would come every year,” he said, pointing to Egypt’s many religious shrines sacred to Shi’ite Muslims. “This would give a huge boost to Egypt’s tourism industry, which has suffered badly in the wake of the revolution.”

Prospects for rapprochement, however, suffered a possible setback in mid-May, when al-Arabi was elected secretary-general of the Arab League in the place of outgoing league chief Amr Moussa. Last week, the ruling SCAF appointed veteran diplomat Mohamed al-Orabi to take al-Arabi’s place at the foreign ministry.

According to Mansour, al-Arabi’s sudden transfer to the Arab League came as “a big disappointment” to those who had been heartened by his promised foreign-policy changes.

“Al-Arabi’s initial statements had prompted a good deal of optimism on the part of the public about anticipated changes in Egyptian policy and the restoration of Egypt’s leading role in the region,” he said. “But these hopes were dashed when he was abruptly kicked upstairs to the Arab League.”

“The move will certainly affect the current drive to restore relations with Iran,” said Mansour. “But we won’t know exactly how until we understand the new minister’s policy orientations.”

Abdelmagid, for his part, said that dialogue with Iran would likely continue during Egypt’s current transitional phase. “But I doubt we’ll see a formal restoration of ties until after Egypt holds presidential and parliamentary elections,” he said.

Parliamentary elections are slated for September, according to the timetable laid down by the ruling SCAF. Presidential elections are expected to be held four months later at most.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani

Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa Al-Omrani write for Inter Press Service.