Iranian frigate (warship) 'IS Alvand' in Suez AP 311.
(photo credit: AP)
This article was first published, and is reprinted with
permission, by Jewish Ideas Daily (www.jewishideasdaily.com/).
To the already bubbling Middle East cauldron, add the prospect of new bilateral
relations between powers that have historically kept each other at arm’s length:
Egypt (Sunni, Arab, lately a client of the US) and Iran (Shi’ite, Persian,
patron of Hezbollah and Hamas). One bone of contention between them has long
Under the West-facing shah, Iran recognized Israel in the
1950s; the act triggered Arab League retaliatory sanctions, instigated by the
East-facing Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. The shah also protected his
country’s 80,000 Jews, and in 1960-61 the Iranian press openly covered the trial
of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Even today, the Iranian Jewish population
numbers some 11,000; by contrast, Egypt’s Jewish community, persecuted and
expropriated, had ceased to exist by the late 1960s.RELATED:
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If anything may have
helped bring Egypt and Iran together in those days, it was the specter of
Islamism. Impelled by that threat, the shah exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini,
while Nasser, taking more direct measures, executed Muslim Brotherhood
theologian Sayyid Qutb. The persistence of the same threat, along with the end
of Egypt’s romance with the Soviet Union, may well have been a factor underlying
the establishment of cordial relations between the two countries after Anwar
Sadat succeeded Nasser in 1970.
These relations ended, however, after
Iran’s 1979 Islamist revolution. Not only was the triumphant Khomeini furious at
Sadat for having granted temporary asylum to the shah, he was also unbendingly
hostile to the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.
In 1981, the mullahs in Tehran
would name a street after Sadat’s Islamist assassin.
Egypt’s next president, was convinced that Tehran was organizing insurrection
inside his country and seeking to influence events in its backyard, especially
in Sudan and Gaza. And then there was Iran’s quest for the atom bomb – a
prospect that clearly worried Mubarak, but which he approached with caution and
equivocation. Sometimes Egypt abstained from International Atomic Energy Agency
votes critical of Tehran; at other times it called on the ayatollahs to
cooperate with the international community.
Meanwhile, at the UN,
Egyptian diplomats led the mob insisting that the real nuclear threat in the
region was Israel.
Mubarak and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad met in 2008, and
afterward the two countries established interest sections in each other’s
Yet relations remained strained. In 2009, a Hezbollah cell was
uncovered preparing to carry out attacks inside Egypt – to Mubarak, this was
further proof of Iran’s imperial designs on the Sunni Arab world. Even stronger
evidence resided in the ties between Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood and its Hamas
affiliate: an instance of Shi’ite-Sunni partnership resting on a shared loathing
of Israel and disdain for the West. If Ahmadinejad accused Egypt of selling out
the Palestinians for the sake of relations with the Zionists, Mubarak blamed
Iran for his troubles with Hamas.
AND YET, despite all this, toward the
end of the Mubarak era Iran had secured Egypt’s agreement for the resumption of
direct flights and now, post-Mubarak, two Iranian warships bound for Syria have
been allowed to transit the Suez Canal for the first time since the 1979
Moreover, in the aftermath of the uprising in Cairo (which
the ayatollahs in Tehran promptly claimed as a reprise of their own), the Muslim
Brotherhood has become an essential element in negotiations between the
opposition and the ruling junta; two probable presidential candidates – Arab
League Secretary-General Amr Moussa and ex-IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei – are
known for their warm connections with Iran.
Tehran certainly looks
forward to “more balanced” relations with Cairo and, most likely, a resumption
of full diplomatic ties. Still, a genuine strategic alliance would be an
unprecedented development. After all, the geostrategic rivalry among Iran, Egypt
and Turkey is a historical fact, not easily overcome by a thin veneer of
Besides, the biggest wildcard in the region has
yet to be played. If, notwithstanding the ayatollahs’ utter ruthlessness in
putting down dissent, today’s contagion of popular uprisings should lead to the
toppling of Iran’s benighted regime, a truly new day will have dawned in the
Middle East.The writer is a former
Jerusalem Post editorial page editor,
and is now contributing editor to Jewish Ideas Daily.