Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad came to Egypt ostensibly to take part in the summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation but in fact to look for ways to develop relations between Tehran and Cairo.
It was his third meeting with the Egyptian president Mohamad Morsi since he was elected in June 2012. Those meetings were held within the framework of international or Islamic summits but observers duly noted that both leaders embraced warmly and had lengthy discussions. They are obviously trying to put the bad blood of the Mubarak period behind them and to turn over a new leaf.
Diplomatic ties between the two countries had been severed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to protest the peace agreement with Israel. Iran did its best to topple Mubarak through the subversive activities of the Gama’a Islamiya which committed a series of terror operations during the last decade of the 20th century and was behind the failed 1995 assassination attempt on Mubarak in Addis Ababa.
Mubarak had chosen a resolutely pro-Western approach and enjoyed a close relationship with the United States as well as keeping to the peace treaty with Israel. He was the leader of the pragmatic front of Arab countries – Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Jordan and Morocco – against Iran.
When Tehran threatened Bahrain by declaring that it was in fact the 14th Iranian province, Mubarak immediately rushed to the country’s capital Manama to warn the Iranians there not to attempt anything against the small state.
The Egyptian president, together with the United States, was the powerful protector of the Gulf states against Iran.
Today, the “new, revolutionary Egypt” as Egyptian politicians and the media call it, is ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood and is changing tack.
“The new Egypt has no enemies,” proclaimed Nabil Elaraby, the first foreign minister after the fall of Mubarak, hinting that his words were meant for Iran.
Deeds soon followed words.
High-ranking Iranians visited Cairo, then ruled by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces; Iranian warships were allowed to transit through the Suez Canal on their way to a show of strength in the Mediterranean. Iran says over and over again that it wants better relations with Egypt and wishes to reestablish diplomatic ties. That was the message carried by the Iranian foreign minister who came to Cairo a few days ago.
According to the Kuwaiti daily Al-Qabas, there was another, secret visit some weeks ago. The head of al-Quds Force, the elite force of the revolutionary guards of Iran, had apparently been invited to demonstrate how to set up a special and elite unit – distinct from the army – faithful to President Mohamed Morsi’s regime. There have been reports in recent months to the effect that the Muslim Brotherhood was forming a special militia to protect the regime and tackle its opponents and that it was already operational.
Since the revolution there has been much talk about the need for Egypt to develop economic and commercial ties as well as tourism and air traffic with Iran. Both countries have much to gain from the move.
Together they number more than 160 million people. There have been promises of Iranian investments in industry, something Egypt badly needs. However, the new Egypt does not want hostile relations with a powerful regional player such as Iran.
The Muslim Brothers and their leader, Morsi, are still too caught up in the fraught political situation at home to develop an active foreign policy.
However they have hinted that they would like to set up an Arab/Islamic forum to coordinate and address regional issues to appease tensions in the region. This had been the motive behind Morsi’s proposal to form a committee of four – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran – to solve the Syrian crisis. It was short lived, as could have been expected since Turkey and Saudi Arabia quit over tensions with Iran. Morsi revived this initiative this week in Cairo but the Saudis refused to come. Riyadh and the Gulf states are deeply suspicious of Iranian subversive activities and its nuclear program; they accuse it of inciting Shi’ite minorities in the Gulf – such as Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia – against the Sunni regimes.
They are not happy at the growing influence of Iran on Iraq, where power has shifted from Sunni to Shi’ite leaders following the Allied Intervention and withdrawal. Turkey is at loggerheads with Iran over the Syrian issue.
This does not deter the Muslim Brothers of Egypt from looking for a better understanding with Iran. They do not want a conflict with Tehran at a time when they are focused on their main goal which is to see movements affiliated with the Brotherhood, after their success in Egypt and Tunisia, taking over most of the Middle East. They have high hopes for success in Libya and Syria. They feel that they have been given a unique opportunity not likely to happen again. Morsi believes that Syrian President Bashar Assad will ultimately fall and does not want to see the United States or other Western countries launching a military intervention which would further destabilize the region. He mentions Syria as little as he can, and keeps a moderate tone while saying that Iran has a role to play. This is of course music to the ears of the ayatollahs.
The Egyptian president is convinced that some form of accommodation between Saudi Arabia and Iran is possible.
Saudi Arabia also works at defusing tensions and has made several moves in that direction, such as letting Iranian warships on their way to the Suez Canal drop anchor in Jeddah, because “it was a training exercise and within the framework of good regional relations.”
King Abdullah warmly embraced Ahmedinejad when he came to the Islamic economic summit in Mecca last year. The fact is also that since the fall of Mubarak Egypt’s relations with the Gulf states have deteriorated; these countries are suspicious of the Muslim Brothers and fear their subversive activities. Recently the United Emirates have arrested a group of Muslim Brothers for allegedly plotting to overthrow the regime.
Still, many observers believe that the historical antagonism between Sunni and Shi’ite Islam will make it impossible for extremist Shi’ite Iran – which is working at imposing a Shi’ite regime over the Middle East through its proxies, Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah – to find a common ground with the Muslim Brotherhood, the spearhead of Sunni extremism today. Al-Azhar’s Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, who met with Ahmedinejad in Cairo this week, warned him not to incite Shi’ite regimes against Sunni regimes. This was only to be expected from the Sunni cleric.
However political expediency and the Brothers’ foreign policy, together with their stubborn resolve to survive, are a stronger incentive to arrive at an understanding by focusing on fields in which they have common interests and avoiding thorny issues.
Iran, well aware of the shifting sands of the Middle East and bracing for the loss of its faithful ally Syria – making contact with Hezbollah more difficult – is eager not to be isolated and to find some form of agreement with Egypt until it can redefine its interests in the region.
Egypt must also take into consideration its relationship with the United States and the peace treaty with Israel. US President Barack Obama appears sympathetic to the Brotherhood. After his reelection he hastened to say that he would throw the full weight of his presidency behind efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the nuclear issue with Iran – though all options remain on the table. He would certainly not object to seeing Iran and Egypt find a compromise which would help the diplomatic efforts of America. Both the Brotherhood and Iran are hostile to Israel and want to see it disappear. However right now Morsi receives from Ahmadinejad the proverbial fig leaf he needs. The Iranian leader told Al-Ahram on February 6 that “Iran does not threaten to strike the Zionist enemy and develops its military capacities for defense purposes only.”
Israel should not bank on a declaration which was obviously intended to facilitate a possible alliance with Egypt without endangering that country’s links with the US.
Bottom line, diplomatic relations are yet to be formally restored, but the two heads of state have already met three times and many high-ranking Iranian officials have visited Cairo while Egyptian media do not seem hostile to the move.
The elephant is in the room even if nobody appears to notice it.
The writer, a fellow of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.
Correction: This article originally stated it was Ahmadinejad's third visit with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.