Cairo & Teheran - a new affair of the heart?

For 30 years, Egypt and Iran have been bitter enemies. Yet today, they are inching toward detente.

mubarak ahamdinejad 88 (photo credit: )
mubarak ahamdinejad 88
(photo credit: )
For 30 years, Egypt and Iran have been bitter enemies locked in hatred. While other battles are fought over land, religion and resources, this one has been waged, in part, over a street name. Yet, today, the two are inching toward detente, in a bid to bridge a divide wider than the Suez Canal. Iran severed diplomatic relations with Egypt following President Anwar Sadat's signing of the Camp David peace agreement with Israel in 1979. Tensions were exacerbated the same year when Sadat welcomed the Shah of Iran following the collapse of his regime. The conflict again intensified in 1981, when an Iranian street was named after Khalid Al-Islambouli, the man who assassinated Sadat, and reached its crescendo when Cairo supported Iraq during its war with Iran. Based upon this history, it might be surprising that the two nations even have interest sections in each other's capitals. But over the past few months, Egypt and Iran have expressed a willingness to re-establish ties: embassies are now open in each other's capital, and officials from both countries have been shuttling back and forth. But what has caused the two sides to move toward rapprochement? Political analyst Nader Mokhtari believes, "talking is always a positive thing. When you don't, problems occur." Newfound Rapprochement Recently, Iran has been doing a lot of talking to many different countries. So it was not surprising to find someone who is optimistic. Mokhtari, enthusiastic in his assessment, says, "I think there is a future, Egypt's sourcing its future in Islam and economic ties between both countries were a great loss. They should be pursued again." In the time since Iran's revolution, the two states have gone their separate ways politically: Egypt having become a stalwart ally of the United States and Iran emerging as one of America's most bitter foes. So before President George W. Bush climbed onto Air Force One and flew to the Middle East for talks, a curious warming of ties between Iran and Egypt had taken place before Teheran - the Islamic Republic's capital - was buried under snow. Both parties are looking to start afresh. Recently, Iran offered Egypt help if it decides to undertake a domestic nuclear program. Although some see a wry smile on the Iranian's face, the proposal should be considered a firm offer. It would be Teheran's first major step in establishing itself as a responsible nuclear state in the region. But could this be the ember causing the melt? Mokhtari is thinking along those lines: "Iran has the capability to help build such a place, but I'm a little skeptical about the more advanced concepts." He agrees that an Iranian move in this manner would surely upset the White house? "Enriching Uranium or developing centrifuges could be a touchy subject. But while I would say that Iran could definitely be used for construction, the matter of the technological aspects is one to wait on and see." A restoration of full diplomatic ties could bring significant changes to the rest of the Middle East, given that both Egypt and Iran are powerful players in the region. Both Iran and Egypt have something to gain from such a move. Iran could use the friendly relations to dispel fears in the Sunni Muslim world that its nuclear program poses no threat and that it is not seeking Shi'ite domination in Sunni countries. If Iran has its way, this could also help it consolidate its growing influence in the region, by joining forces with a dominant Arab power. Egypt is an exceptional portal from which to reach out to the Sunni world, because it has good relations with many diverse and often rivaling powers in the region. Egypt can expect an alliance with Teheran will give it the power to stop Iran's disruptive influence in the Middle East, and bring about greater stability in the region. The Al-Islambouli Affair One significant sticking point preventing reconciliation between the two countries is a street in a district of Teheran just north of the downtown area that was named in honor of Khalid Al-Islambouli. To look at the street you would be hard-pressed to think of it as a diplomatic obstacle. But while it is said that every stand-off needs visual center piece, a point with which Mokhtari agrees, center pieces do not come much larger than the four-story mural of Al-Islambouli, pictured behind bars with doves flying free. It is painted on the side of the Imam Khomeini building which houses a bank and the offices responsible for confiscating any remaining property of the Shah. Opposite the tower are the Valiassr Mosque and a local park. In a point of irony not lost on the Iranians, a road in Egypt bears the name of the Shah. But do residents and workers in the street actually know the significance of their zip code? Asked why the street was called by its current name, a newsagent located there said, "[I have] no idea and I don't care." He, like the residents who live there, thought the road was going to be renamed. "The Basij [volunteer officers loyal to the religious leaders] and Ahmadi Nejad's government are very strong and if they don't want to change it, they won't," he said. The 12:30 call to prayer from Valiassr Mosque drowns out the background noise of slushing car tires and engines. A mullah walks towards the mosque. Many ordinary Iranians listen intently to what the religious clerics have to say. They are featured regularly on news broadcasts as in-studio experts or guests. Their views are shared nationally by other clerics, depending on their moderation. The mullah outside is well versed in Al-Islambouli's history, and his take on the current Iranian Egyptian moves is simple. "If change is good, then we should start relations. However, if Egypt is doing something counter- productive to Iran's interests, there's no need. We haven't had relations with that country for a long time." Through American Eyes Hala Mustafa, editor of the Al-Ahram political Quarterly Democracy Review, sees the thaw in Egyptian-Iranian relations entirely through an American prism. It is a direct result of the United States' policies in the Middle East, she says. There are more disagreements between Egypt and the US than meets the eye, Mustafa believes, and this is causing no small amount of tension. "Egypt is sometimes obliged to adopt the same line as the US in public or during bilateral negotiations," she says. "But actually, its foreign policy has a very different framework than the American one." According to Mustafa, Egypt is seeking a closer relationship with Iran, a major US foe in the region, in order to differentiate itself from Washington and its policies of change and reform in the Middle East. Dr. Osama Harb, a member of the Egyptian Shoura Council and editor of the political magazine A-Siyssa A-Dawliyya, says Egypt can use this warming of relations in order to pressure Iran into falling in line with Cairo's goal of a nuclear-weapons-free Middle East. However, Harb is not optimistic that the two countries will be able to overcome the many obstacles in their way. For starters, he says, the Egyptians are not happy about Iran's ambitions in exporting the Islamic revolution. One example of this is the diverging attitudes of the two countries towards Israel. The fact that since 1979 Egypt has had a peace agreement with the country that Iran has urged to be wiped off the map is inevitably a bone of contention. "The relationship between Iran and Hizbullah; Iran and Syria; the influence of Iran in Lebanon; and now the relationship between Iran and Hamas - these are a major source of problems," Harb says. "Egyptians do not feel comfortable with these developments." Can the US Benefit? No doubt Washington is following these developments closely. After all, a strategic alliance between US-ally Egypt, and Iran, a major American rival, can have significant implications for the future of Washington's policies in the region. The current tension between the US and Iran is focused on the latter's efforts to pressure Iran into abandoning its nuclear program. The administration has implied that it will not rule out military action against Iran. Edgar Valesquez, a spokesman for the US State Department, told The Media Line that Washington was not intervening in what it sees as Cairo's domestic affairs. "Egypt is a sovereign state that will manage its bilateral relations and guard its national interests as it sees fit," Valesquez said. "We are confident Egypt understands the harmful role Tehran has played within the region and is taking that into account." But would a strong Iranian-Egyptian alliance necessarily be detrimental to America's efforts to install democracy and freedom in the Middle East? Washington might adopt a dual attitude toward any future alliance between the two countries. Egypt wants to be a powerful broker in the Middle East and in improving its relations with Iran, Cairo could help the US pressure Teheran into abandoning its nuclear program. However, Washington is also likely to seek clarifications from Cairo regarding any cooperation in the field of nuclear energy, which Iran has offered to Egypt. A major factor which Egypt cannot afford to ignore in this equation is its reliance on significant US aid. Egypt receives some $1.3 billion in military aid from the US every year. The US can, if it wishes, use this aid as a tool to influence Egypt's policies. Robert Pelletreau, a former US ambassador to Egypt, says it is unlikely the aid will be reduced or otherwise affected by Egypt's rapprochement with a US foe. "I think the assistance has a different motivation and a different basis," he says. The large scale yearly assistance began after the Camp David Accords and the Egyptian-Israeli treaty. Pelletreau pointed to a currently high level of strategic cooperation between Cairo and Washington, with Egypt enabling the US to use its territory for providing its forces in the Gulf with logistic support. "As long as those aspects of the relationship are not called into question, I don't think the US will meddle much with its level of assistance," Pelletreau says. From the comments made by those working on Teheran's Khalid Al-Islambouli Street, it appears as though many want improved relations with Egypt. The cleric's answer is one that is perhaps closest to the Iranian government's way of thinking: "Issues are resolved when they need to be and on Iranian terms. If they are not, the Islamic Republic will be more than happy to continue doing what it is doing alone. Khalid Al-Islambouli's street name is just one such example."