Cairo and Teheran - a new affair of the heart?

What Egyptian-Iranian detente will mean for the region.

ahmadinejad 224 88 (photo credit: )
ahmadinejad 224 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. 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 Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlevi following the collapse of his regime. The conflict again intensified in 1981, when a Teheran street was named after Khalid Al-Islambouli, the man who assassinated Sadat, and reached its crescendo when Cairo supported Iraq during its 1980-1988 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 the countries have been shuttling back and forth. Perhaps most significant was Iranian National Security Council chief Ali Larijani's visit to Cairo in December. Larijani, a close aide of Iran's most powerful figure, spiritual leader Ali Khamenei, met with high-raking Egyptian officials including Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu Al-Gheit; Intelligence Minister Omar Suleiman; Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa; and Muhammad Sayid Tantawi, the grand sheikh of the Al-Azhar Mosque and Islamic University. But what has caused the two countries 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. In the time since Iran's 1979 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 last week, a curious warming of ties between Iran and Egypt had taken place. 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. 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 such an Iranian move 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," he says. Mokhtari also touches upon Iran's growing stature within the region. Afghanistan has seen Iranians build roads in the country's west, even when the Taliban were in power. Iran has also sat round a table with the US, discussing Iraq's security. Perhaps this is why many in Teheran are starting to believe that Egypt and Iran have more in common than ever before. The link is the fraternity many Iranians feel for fellow Muslims. 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 Teheran and Cairo have something to gain from such a move. Iran could use the friendly relations to dispel fears in the Sunni world that its nuclear program a threat and that it is seeking Shi'ite domination in Sunni countries. If Iran has its way, joining forces with a dominant Arab power could also help it consolidate its growing influence in the region. Egypt is an exceptional portal from which to reach out to the Sunni world, because it has good relations with diverse and often feuding powers in the region. Egypt can expect an alliance with Teheran to give it the power to stop Iran's disruptive influence in the Middle East, increasing stability in the region. The Al-Islambouli Affair One significant sticking point preventing reconciliation between the two countries is the street just north of downtown Teheran named in honor of Sadat assassin Khalid Al-Islambouli. To look at it you would be hard-pressed to think of it as a diplomatic obstacle. But while it is said that every standoff needs a visual center piece, a point with which Mokhtari agrees, center pieces do not come much larger than the four-story mural of 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 late 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 shah's name. But do residents and workers in the street know the significance of the name? Asked why the street was named Islambouli, a news agent there says, "[I have] no idea and I don't care." He, like area residents, thought the road was going to be renamed. "The Basij [volunteer officers loyal to the religious leaders] and [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad's government are very strong and if they don't want to change it, they won't," the news agent says. Further up the road, a young traffic policeman wearing a matching white poncho and rimmed leather hat helps guide motorists. He is cold, but happy to answer questions. He comes out with a carbon-copy answer to that of the newsagent, saying that he doesn't know who Islambouli was, but did want to find out. Surely, he would remember if the name of the road road has changed or not: "No, it hasn't happened. But I know they're going to change the street name to 'Park'. It doesn't matter. They'll change the name of every street to Imam Khomeini. If that's fine, we'll have thousands of streets named after him." In fact, the name of the street was officially changed in 2004. Political analyst Mokhtari thought the name became "Intifada Avenue" last year, although people living and working there have little idea. A flower shop owner near the mural knows the reason for the street name and why the four-story mural is there, although he thinks the Egyptian Islambouli was actually Lebanese. Regardless, the owner is conscious of Iran's ties with other countries and believes that "if changing the name improves relations with Egypt, it should be done soon." A mullah outside the Valiassr Mosque is well versed in 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 counterproductive 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 Foundation's quarterly Democracy Review, sees the thaw in Egyptian-Iranian relations entirely through an American prism. It is a direct result of the US's 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 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 (the upper house of the country's parliament) and editor of the political magazine A-Siyssa A-Dawliyya, says Egypt can use this warming of relations 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 Teheran's ambitions to export the Islamic revolution. "Iran is a regional power and it has resources and ambitions, but at the same time there is a contradiction between Iran in this capacity and the other principle powers in the region, like Egypt. There is a latent and indirect competition over influence in the region," he says. One example of this is the diverging attitudes of the two countries toward 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 could have significant implications for the future of Washington's policies in the region. 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 says. "We are confident Egypt understands the harmful role Teheran 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 region 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 between Iran and Egypt. A major factor in this equation that Egypt cannot afford to ignore is its reliance on significant US aid. Egypt receives around $1.3 billion in military aid from the US every year. The US can, if it wishes, use this assistance 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 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 letting the US use its territory to provide 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. It is more likely that any thaw in Egyptian-Iranian relations will be subtle rather than drastic, so as not to upset the delicate balance in American-Egyptian relations. Harb says aid money from the US is certainly in the back of the minds of those pulling the strings in Cairo. "The [ruling] National Democratic Party depends heavily on the support of the US, so I don't think they can make adventures or drastic changes that will affect their relations with the States negatively," he says. For its part, the United States relies on Egypt to perform the role of go-between in several Middle Eastern disputes, most prominently the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A closer Egyptian relationship with Iran is likely to affect the course of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Egypt is not only a mediator but an active player in the conflict, controlling the flow of weapons into the Gaza Strip. This has recently become a major sticking point in relations between Israel and Egypt. "I think a relationship with Iran is something that plays into Egypt's role in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking," Pelletreau says. "Iran's support for Hamas is certainly one issue that Egypt will want to address with the Iranians, particularly if the Iranians are trying to send certain types of military equipment to Hamas in Gaza through Egyptian territory or the Suez Canal," he says. But for the time being, Harb, who spends much of his time brushing elbows with Egyptian decision-makers, downplays reports of a celebratory opening of embassies. "I think the contradictory factors in this relationship are more decisive than the friendship manifestations," he says. "You can expect an improvement here and there but it doesn't mean a strategic development." 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 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."