In the wake of the Egyptian revolution, Iran has sought to capitalize on the country’s new Islamist government to forge closer ties between the two nations. Egypt has, however, hesitated to embrace Iran. Indeed, any future alliance between the two countries remains fraught with challenges. The explanation for this can be found in the historical relationship between the two countries, as well as in Egypt’s strategic alliance with the United States and other Arab states that staunchly oppose Iranian influence in the region.
A Historical Overview of Iranian-Egyptian Relations
Egyptian-Iranian relations have included periods of competition and cooperation, friendship and enmity. Prior to the Iranian revolution, the two countries enjoyed close relations influenced by the personal friendship between Egyptian president, Anwar al-Sadat, and Iranian shah, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi. The two leaders shared common interests in building their nations, held a pro-Western bias during the Cold War, and were anxious about the rise of domestic Islamist movements.
After the overthrow of the Shah and ascendance of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Egyptian-Iranian relationship changed into one of distrust and bitterness. The deterioration grew out of several factors, including Khomeini’s condemnation of the Egypt-Israeli peace treaty, the close relationship between Sadat and the United States, Egypt’s decision to host the ousted Iranian Shah in Cairo, and the Egyptian government’s refusal to hand the Shah over to the revolutionary regime in Tehran. After Sadat’s assassination, one of Tehran’s streets was named after his assassin, Khaled al-Islambouli. In response, Egypt cut all ties with the Iranian government.
Iranian support for groups like Hezbollah and Hamas alienated the Egyptians further and was a factor in Egypt’s decision to support Saddam Hussein’s war against Iran in the 1980’s. Iran’s revolutionary rhetoric and presumed influence over the Gulf’s Shiite population pushed Egypt to create a closer relationship with Saudi Arabia to counterbalance Khomeini’s evolving regional aspirations.
After Khomeini’s death, the Iranian leadership began a new path toward reconciliation with neighboring Gulf States. Under the leadership of presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and later Seyyed Mohammad Khatami, Iran focused on developing commercial and trade relations with its Arab neighbors and the region as a whole.
Iran’s new approach to the region also extended to Egypt, though the pace of engagement was slower and less successful as compared to the Gulf States. After an extended period of stagnation, relations finally moved forward following a phone call between Presidents Mubarak and Khatami in June 2000. A series of goodwill gestures followed, including a decision from the Tehran City Council to entertain Khatami’s request to rename the street for Sadat’s assassin as “intifada.” The move was hailed by Egyptian parliamentarians, including the Muslim Brotherhood’s then-leader in Parliament and current Egyptian President, Dr. Mohamed Morsi. At the time, Morsi said “there was abundance of goodwill between the two countries before Tehran made this move, perhaps the path is now open to strengthen ties between them.”
Other developments followed. This included a meeting between Presidents Mubarak and Khatami at a UN technology summit in Geneva where they exchanged views dubbed “very important,” and an invitation for Mubarak to attend the D-8 economic summit in Tehran for developing nations.
After Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president in 2005, the Iranian government continued efforts to normalize relations with Egypt. In 2007, Ahmadinejad said “We are determined to pursue normalization of relations with Egypt, and if the Egyptian government declares its readiness, before the working hour is over today, we are willing to open Iran’s embassy in Cairo.”
Despite these gestures of friendship, Mubarak remained unprepared to pursue better relations with Iran. The Egyptian President enjoyed strong relations with the Gulf monarchies, especially the Saudis, and had built a strategic alliance with Iran’s adversaries, the United States and Israel. For the Mubarak government, maintaining these connections was far more important than reestablishing diplomatic relations with Tehran.
Egypt’s Uprising: Any Prospects for Conciliation?
Shortly after the start of the Egyptian revolution, on February 4th, 2011, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made statements that compared the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt with Iran’s Islamic revolution. Khamenei further described the upheaval in the region as ‘liberating the Islamic movement’ and dealing a blow to the United States.
Khamenei’s comments were intended, in part, to win over the rising Islamist parties in these countries. Unsurprisingly, these statements spurred negative responses from Mubarak’s foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit. Aboul Gheit condemned Khamenei’s comments as “revealing feelings of hatred and hostility toward Egypt.” The Brotherhood also rejected the Supreme Leader’s statement, insisting it was the ‘Egyptian people’s revolution.”
After Mubarak’s fall, Tehran believed a new relationship with Cairo would soon follow. On April 4th, 2011, Egypt’s new foreign minister, Nabil Al Araby, met with the head of the Iranian Interest Section in Cairo. During the meeting, Al Araby “affirmed that Egypt is opening a new page with all countries including Iran, and the Egyptian and Iranian peoples deserve having relations that reflect their history and culture, provided they are based on mutual respect for the state sovereignty and the non-interference whatsoever in the internal affairs.”
Two months later, an Egyptian delegation of intellectuals, journalists, and businessmen visited Tehran. Dubbed the “people’s diplomacy delegation,” Ahmadinejad and several key government officials received the delegation. Together, they discussed opportunities for restoring ties between the two countries, with Ahmadinejad expressing his willingness to support and share Iran’s industrial and technological expertise with Egypt. Ahmadinejad also took the opportunity to speak of ‘enemies’ opposing renewed relations between the two countries. Two months later, a delegation of Iranian parliamentarians arrived in Cairo.
Iran welcomed the July 2012 inauguration of Mohamed Morsi as Egypt’s first Islamist President. Ahmadinejad spoke with Morsi to wish him success and invited the new President to the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) conference in Tehran in late August.
Several days before the Morsi-Ahmadinejad call, Iran’s Fars News Agency, published a fabricated interview with the newly elected Egyptian president claiming he was ‘interested in closer ties with Iran’ and ‘sought revisions to the Camp David Accords with Israel.’ The Egyptian government denied these reports and asserted that “legal action will be taken against the Iranian Fars news agency, which fabricated an interview.” The FARS news report received another blow after Morsi made public comments pledging to be ‘president for all Egyptians,’ and ‘to honor all international treaties.’
The Iranian Rationale
Iran’s response to the Egyptian revolution has several potential motivations. First, Tehran may hope to capitalize on post-Arab Spring realities and the rise of Islamists to advance its narrative of an ‘Islamic Awakening’ and to bolster anti-Western sentiments among regional governments.
Second, Iran’s anxious attempts to renew relations with Egypt may also be attributed in part to escalating pressure and international sanctions against Tehran. The U.S. and the EU have tightened sanctions on Iran, with particular focus on financial sectors and the oil industry. By re-establishing relations with Egypt, Iran may hope to win safe access to the Suez Canal and bypass sanctions by opening a new market for its goods.
Finally, in light of the worsening conflict inside Syria, Iran may be pursuing an alliance with Egypt to counteract the potential loss of its Syrian ally. The Syrian crisis has left Iran standing alone while other regional players side with the Syrian opposition.
The Egyptian Position
Morsi’s decision to attend the NAM summit in Tehran was met with concern from the Western media, who saw it as a victory for Iran. Egypt has responded with an outreach strategy to reassure its regional and international partners that Morsi’s stopover in Tehran – after a state visit to China – does not signal a shift in Egyptian foreign policy and that any possible engagement with Iran will not come at their expense. This strategy likely influenced the U.S. State Department’s decision to downplay Morsi’s Iran visit, stating that normalization of relations between Egypt and Iran is “a national decision (for Egypt) to make.”
Morsi’s speech at the summit criticizing Bashar al-Assad’s regime is further evidence that the President has decided to side with Egypt’s Arab and Western partners over and above the Iranians, who were noticeably displeased with his comments.
Despite the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise, it is naïve to assume that Islamists in Egypt will automatically ally with those in Iran. Egypt’s Islamist movement is predominantly Sunni, as are its Arab allies in the Gulf who share an interest in countering Shiite and Iranian influence in the region. Domestically, the Salafi party, al-Nour, is leading the fight against the spread of Shiism in Egypt. Its members have gone so far as to warn against opening Egypt to Iranian tourism, for fears this would increase Shiite influence and challenge Egypt’s Sunni character.
Egypt’s regional and foreign policy will not change swiftly to embrace Iran. Morsi has continually promised to respect Egypt’s international treaties and maintain its close relationship with other Arab states, specifically Saudi Arabia where Morsi made his first official state visit as president. In addition, Egypt will seek to preserve its strategic relationship with several Western countries and the United States. Most importantly, Egypt’s relationship with the West and the GCC is vital, at least in the short-term, to help Egypt overcome its growing economic crisis.
*Ahmed Morsy is a PhD Candidate at School of International Relations, University of St Andrews.