THE DIFFICULT ROAD TO RESUMING EGYPTIAN-IRANIAN RELATIONS

This paper provides a reading in the Egyptian-Iranian future of relations, in light of many indicators and developments within the context of bilateral and regional dialogues and talks. What are their chances of success, in light of the structural constraints inherent in the relations of the two countries that have kept them severed since 1979?

by Dr. Shehata Al-Arabi
  • Publisher – STRATEGICS
  • Release Date – Mar 27, 2022

Introduction

There are many reasons that always make the Egyptian-Iranian relations be an important topic for research and politics centers in the Middle East and beyond, the first of which is the importance of Egypt and Iran in the Middle East, whether in terms of political significance, the population size, or experience going deep into history. The second reason is the main and influential position of the two countries in the equation of regional balance on the one hand, and the international policy regarding the region on the other hand. The third reason is that the relations between Egypt and Iran has been, and will continue to be, one of the important determinants for the regional alliances and alignments. 

The Historical Background of the Egyptian-Iranian Relations

Egyptian-Iranian relations go deep into history, where various historical sources report that such relations date back to the Great Cyrus era, who ruled Iran from 558-529 BC. There were many communications made between him and the Pharaohs. Then, Egypt was an arena of conflict between the Persians and the Greeks, to become later a conflict arena between the Persians and the Romans, and then between the Safavid and Ottoman states during the "Islamic era".

In 1939, Egypt and Iran experienced a royal marriage through the marriage of the Shah's son at the time, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, to Princess Fawzia, sister of King Farouk I of Egypt and Sudan. However, the marriage ended in divorce in 1948, leading to some tension in the relationship between the two countries.

Although Tehran's relations with Cairo improved shortly after the July 23, 1952 Revolution in Egypt, when Mosaddegh's government was present in Iran, which withdrew its country's recognition of Israel. Such relations quickly returned to controversy and tension, after overthrowing Mosaddegh's in 1953.

But Jamal Abdel Nasser's death in Egypt, and as Anwar Sadat's came to power in 1970, helped in improving the relations between Egypt and Iran, bringing the two countries out of previous tension and conflict. But the success of the 1979 "Iranian Revolution" restored the relations with Egypt to tension and severity again, as Sadat took a hostile stance towards the revolution because of his friendship with the Shah, whom Egypt hosted, where he resided until he passed the way. Moreover, the Iranian Revolution came up anti-Western and anti-American tendencies. Egypt and Iran were no longer related with a single international ally. Tension swelled with the conclusion of the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement in March 1979, where Iran severed its diplomatic relations with Egypt.

The situation of severing the ties continued in the tenure of the former President Mohamed Hosni Mubarak, who followed Sadat's policies, whether in relation to Israel or the United States, or the position on religious political trends. The tensions between the two countries exacerbated by Egypt's accusation of Iran that it supports the Egyptian terrorist groups.

However, the severed diplomatic relations did not prevent some of the communication that Iran was initiating and seeking to, especially in light of the revisions of its foreign policy towards the Arab region after Khomeini's death, the end of the war with Iraq, and the coming of Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997) and, after him, and Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) reaching to the presidency, with its pragmatic orientation.

But Egypt's handling of relations with Iran, in general, and Tehran's initiatives during the tenure of Hosni Mubarak, were hesitant and conservative. The relations between the two sides continued to be diplomatically severed until February 2011.

Cairo went to "review" its policy toward Iran, as demonstrated by the statements of the First Foreign Minister, Nabil al-Arabi, after the events of January 25, who stated that Egypt does not consider Iran an enemy state, and that it is ready to start a new phase with it. Egypt also allowed the passage of Iranian warships in the Suez Canal, for the first time since 1979. Then came the visit of the former Egyptian President, Mohamed Morsi, to Iran in August 2012, to attend the Non-Aligned Summit, representing a major event in the course of the relationship between the two countries, as it was the first visit by an Egyptian president to Tehran since the "Iranian Revolution".

But overthrowing the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt after the June 30, 2013 revolution restored relations to how they were before 2011, particularly with Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi', frequent talk about the Security of the Arabian Gulf as an extension of Egypt's security, as well as the widening tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Impact of the New Variables and Determinants

There are indicators and variables that appeared during the past period calling to rise the following question: are the relations between Egypt and Iran heading towards reproach after long decades of severance?

Perhaps the most significant variables and indicators are:

First: The developments in Iran's relations track with the Gulf Arab states, particularly Egypt's two main Gulf allies: The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, in light of the visit of UAE national security adviser, Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed al-Nahyan, to Tehran in December 2021, in addition to Saudi Arabia and Tehran's entry into four-round talks hosted by Baghdad. A fifth round is reported to be held soon. This prompted some to request Cairo to reconsider its relations with Tehran. The importance of these developments stems from two considerations:

1. The Gulf variable is one of the main determinants of relations between Egypt and Iran, as the latter realizes that any attempt to rapprochement with Cairo, in light of the tension with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, will not succeed. "We are working to improve relations with Egypt. Solving the problems between Tehran and Riyadh could have an impact on this issue," Said Mir Massoud Hosseinian, Director General of the Middle East and North Africa Department at the Iranian Foreign Ministry, in October 2021.

2. Under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt gives relations with the Arab Gulf states, particularly the UAE and Saudi Arabia, exceptional importance, given the advanced economic relations between the two parties.

Second: The shifts in the pattern of regional interactions in the region, in terms of reviewing past policies in the interest of more pragmatic policies, and the tendency towards cooperation and understanding for many reasons, the most important of which is: the change in U.S policy towards the Arab region, regarding the decline of its interest, and its focus on the Pacific region in the face of China, which the US considers the main threat to its global leadership, as well as the lessons provided by conflicts in the region over the past decade.

Third: "Flexible" alliances and "liquid" regional interactions, which became characterizing the political interactions in the region, and focusing on the cooperation between states on issues and files in question, in spite that there are differences of views and positions on other issues and files. This allows states, including disputes, and possibly conflicts, in certain regions or topics, to cooperate on issues relating to their higher interests and national security considerations, and this applies to both Egypt and Iran.

Fourth: the signals that surfaced during the past period in the context of relations between the two countries. The most important of which is the meeting of the Iranian Foreign Minister foreign ministers and high-level officials from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, Egypt, Qatar, and Turkey on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September 2021, and the assertion of Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Said Khatibzadeh, in October 2021 that "the progress in relations between Cairo and Tehran forward is in the interest of the region", and the talk of exploratory meetings held on The level of Egyptian and Iranian experts and specialists. In August 2021, Zada announced talks between the Egyptian and Iranian foreign ministers, on the sidelines of the Baghdad Conference on Cooperation and Partnership.

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Egyptian sources also said that Cairo conveyed messages to Tehran, rejecting through them the presence of Iranian-backed armed groups in Iraq, warning of the consequences of any threat to the security of the Red Sea, and demanding that it stop interfering in Arab internal affairs.

Fifth: Egypt's interest in strengthening the relations with Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. This may be a factor in pushing Cairo to reconsider its relations with Tehran. In this context, it can be noted:

1. Egypt engaged with Iraq and Jordan in a tripartite development partnership since 2019.

2. The project to deliver Egyptian gas to Lebanon through Syria.

3. The expected development in Cairo and Damascus relations, as Egypt is one of the Arab countries that supports Syria's return to the Arab League and the Arab domain.

Sixth: Egypt's desire to maintain the situation calm in Gaza, in light of Tehran's close ties with several armed factions in the Gaza Strip, including Hamas, Jihad, and others. At the same time, Cairo is interested in maintaining stability in the Gaza Strip, and not escalating the military conflict with Israel, as well as Egypt's role in the Palestinian reconciliation file. This makes Egypt need to communicate with Iran, in one way or another, within the frame of seeking to maintain stability in Gaza and not use it as an Iranian card to confront Israel.

Seventh: Egypt's interest in navigation security, in light of the continuing Houthi threat to the security of navigation in the Red Sea and the Bab al-Mandab Strait, due to the effect of such threat on the traffic in the Suez Canal. Given Iran's close relationship with the Houthis in Yemen, who can negatively affect navigation in the Red Sea, this would be another factor that could bring Cairo and Tehran closer together.

Finally, the Ukraine war and the resulting international and regional polarization could, in one way or another, affect Egypt's and Iran's relations, considering that the two countries are close to Russia, and that they took positions closer to side Russia in the war. This may prompt Moscow in the coming period, especially if the situation evolves toward a sharp international polarization, to bring its allies in the region, including Tehran and Cairo, closer together.

Barriers and Obstacles

However, despite the above said, Egypt and Iran did not engage in a political dialogue, like the dialogue between Iran and Saudi Arabia, or between them and the UAE. News of contacts between the two sides fade down until they completely disappear.

Perhaps the most important of these obstacles are:

First: Given that the two countries are large, and have regional ambitions, we find that competition is the main and extended feature of the Egyptian-Iranian relationship throughout history. This prevents the establishment of a stable "alliance" between them, considering that the disputes between the Egypt and Iran on key files in the region are not novel or accidental, rather, they have deep extensions and are at the center of relations between the two states. Among the most prominent files of contemporary disagreement are: the security of the Gulf, the relationship with Israel, and the United States, Iranian regional behavior, and other issues.

Second: there are indications that the Vienna Negotiations on Iran's nuclear issue could succeed in reaching an agreement soon. Egyptian and Gulf positions will be determined by the nature of such agreement, whether or not it will it include Iran's ballistic missile file and regional behavior, and whether these are the concerns that Gulf states called to address in any upcoming agreement. Therefore, if the agreement ignores the calculations and concerns of regional states, it may be an obstacle to Cairo and Tehran's relations. It could even worsen Egyptian-Iranian relations, bearing in mind that the 2015 nuclear deal allowed Tehran more money to strengthen its military and political presence in the region.

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Third: the calculations of the US position and factor on any move toward Iran, especially with regard to the nature of cooperation between the Egyptian and American military establishment, which the parties are keen to keep.

Fourth: Israel is a key determinant of Egyptian-Iranian relations, perhaps more than other determiners, given the high tensions between Iran and Israel that could lead to a military confrontation at any time. This makes Cairo hesitant to take serious steps regarding its relations with Tehran, for two reasons: the first of which is to ensure that the development of Egyptian-Israeli relations is not influenced, after Sharm el-Sheikh hosted the trilateral meeting between the Egyptian president, the Israeli prime minister, and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. In addition to the Negev Meeting, which included the foreign ministers of the United States, Israel, Morocco, Egypt, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates. Second: to avoid the pressures Egypt could face in the event of a military clash between Tel Aviv and Tehran.

Fifth: Iran is concerned about Egypt's relations with Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Although the Spokesman of the Iranian Foreign Ministry said that his country welcomes the partnership project between Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt, Tehran viewed the trilateral rapprochement as a source of threat and danger to its relations with Iraq. Therefore, Iran announced its intention to hold talks with Iraq, aiming to reach a strategic agreement between the two countries.

In addition, Tehran views the project of transporting the Egyptian gas to Lebanon through Syria as directed to press on it, especially as it seeks to supply and send shipments of its oil to Lebanon.

Iran also recognizes that any Arab rapprochement with Syria will affect relations between Tehran and Damascus, in one way or another, especially since Iran is the subject of expected bargaining in every Arab move toward Damascus.

Sixth: The volatility of Iran's relationship with the Gulf Arab states. Despite some positive signs in the course of relations between Iran and both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as mentioned above, Gulf-Iranian relations are characterized by volatility and rapid transformation, due to the loss of trust between the two sides, as well as previous negative experiences.

In this context, the Gulf-Iranian rapprochement is still in the process of talks. It was not tangibly reflected on the controversial issues, as the escalation of Ansar Allah Houthi group in Yemen continues, confronting the Arab Alliance to support legitimacy. Iran insists on limiting dialogue to bilateral relations, without addressing regional issues that are the subject of the biggest and most complex dispute, which the Iranian Foreign Minister pointed out by saying "Saudi Arabia wants a dialogue on regional files, but it is a dialogue focused on bilateral relations." He called for "a broad regional dialogue involving Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey to solve the region's problems". This makes the talks between the two sides vulnerable to deterioration and interruption at any time.

Seventh: Regardless of any developments, Egypt is keen to keep the relationship with Iran a strategic card in its hands in its relations with the countries of the region, especially as it presents itself as an Arab force in the face of the Iranian threat. This leaves Cairo reluctant to restore relations with Tehran, even during periods when the relations between Tehran and the Gulf Arab states have been positive or quiet, especially during the tenures of Khatami and Rafsanjani, as noted earlier. Some even talked about the "Egypt Complex" in Iran-Arab relations since the Revolution.

In this context, Egypt may not see normalizing the relations with Iran as an urgent need under the current circumstances, either because of the geographical distance, or because of the weakness or absence of trade and economic relations. According to the head of The Egyptian Trade Representation "there is no direct trade relationship between the two parties, but through a third party".

Eighth: Egypt's concern about the relationship between Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, where Cairo considers such Group a major threat to stability. Hence, the position of the Muslim Brotherhood is a fundamental determinant in Egypt's foreign relations. Despite the disparity between the projects of Iran and the Muslim Political Brotherhood, but this did not prevent establishing relations between them. The founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hasan al-Banna, was one of the most enthusiastic people about the reproaching between the Sunnis and the Shiites that appeared in the 1940s. Khomeini was, in a way or another, influenced in his vision of the "Rule of Islam" with the idea of "Ruling" by Sayyid Qutb, who is a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Iranian leader, Ali Khamenei, translated Qutb's book "The Future of This Religion" into Persian in 1966. After the "Iranian Revolution" in 1979, the Muslim Brotherhood sent a delegation to Tehran in order to congratulate it. After Khomeini's death in 1989, the Muslim Brotherhood issued an obituary describing Khomeini as the "dear deceased of Islam" and "the leader who ignited up the Islamic Revolution against tyrants".

During the Muslim Brotherhood's rule of Egypt after 2011, the Times British newspaper surfaced a report on Tehran's efforts to provide security and intelligence assistance to the "Islamic" rule in Egypt, in order to enable the Muslim Bortherhood to build its security and intelligence services. The report also said that former IRGC Quds Corps, commander Qassem Soleimani, visited Cairo secretly for this purpose, and that members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood's Guidance Council confirmed the visit took place.

In the light of all of the above, Egypt is expected to remain, as it has been over the past decades, a "complex" in the medium or foreseeable course of Arab-Iranian relations, this is because the factors that dominate the relations between the two countries are highly complex and overlapping. As well as the lack of an urgent Egyptian need, both politically and economically, to restore relations with Tehran, for many reasons. Finally, because these relations are related to Arab, regional, and international factors. Moreover, most of Egypt's concerns, regarding the relationship with Tehran, are security concerns related to Iran's role in Gaza, its relations with the Muslim Brotherhood, and its association with Red Sea security. All of which are issues that can be coordinated within the security and intelligence framework without the urgent need for major steps at the political level.

The opinions expressed in this study are those of the author. Strategiecs shall bear no responsibility for the views and/or opinion of its author on security, economic, social, and other issues, as they do not necessarily represent the views of the Think Tank.

Dr. Shehata Al-Arabi

A Researcher on Political Islam