Iran and Egypt point to a new order
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
"The decision to restore relations has been taken, and in the coming days, Inshallah
[God willing], we will see the resumption of our relations." That was Iranian
vice president Mohammad Ali Abtahi in January 2004 telling the Arab press that
"official declarations" regarding the resumption of diplomatic ties between
Iran and Egypt were imminent. Three and a half years later, we are still
Last month, though, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad used the opportunity of his
official visit to the United Arab Emirates to make a major pitch by stating,
"We are determined to pursue
normalization of relations with Egypt, and if the Egyptian government declares
its readiness, before the working hour is over today, we are willing to open
Iran's embassy in Cairo."
The Egyptian government responded favorably, and now there is even talk of
Ahmadinejad visiting Egypt. Iran's ambassador to Syria circulated the news of
Ahmadinejad's interest in traveling to Cairo, which means Damascus will act as
a bridge over the troubled waters that separate Tehran and Cairo - relations
have been stalled for 28 years.
The issue now is whether this latest flare-up of mutual interest in
rapprochement between the region's two biggest Muslim nations can be taken any
more seriously than in 2004. The obstacles that thwarted previous efforts have
not disappeared, yet there is more room for optimism than before.
In terms of the foreign-policy priorities of Iran and Egypt, the countries are
moving closer, or rather on parallel tracks, which makes normalization somewhat
easier, theoretically speaking; there are at present only low-level diplomatic
contacts between Tehran and Cairo.
"Iran still has some considerations before it can upgrade relations to the
ambassadorial level," Ali Larijani, who heads Iran's powerful Supreme National
Security Council, stated soon after Ahmadinejad's announcement. This was after
a small brush-fire effect in the hardline Iranian dailies such as Kayhan and
Jomhouri Eslami. They criticized Ahmadinejad for making "hasty" and "premature"
decisions regarding a regime tagged as a "lackey of America and the Zionists".
Indeed, Iran's policymakers have the tough challenge of normalizing relations
with Cairo without appearing to have compromised their ideological loyalty to
the "Imam's line". This is reflected in the late ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's
letter to the then foreign minister, Ibrahim Yazdi, in 1979, which instructed
the government to sever ties with Egypt because of the Camp David accords that
led directly to the Israel-Egypt peace treaty and Egypt's "unquestioned
obedience" to the United States and Israel.
A number of Iranian analysts have compared Khomeini's decision to break
relations with Egypt with the one by Egyptian revolutionary leader Gemal Abdul
Nasser to sever ties with the shah of Iran in 1960 in reaction to Iran's
recognition of the state of Israel.
For more than a decade, Iran's foreign-policy makers have sought a viable
nuance on Khomeini's legacy, whereby Egypt's "distancing itself from Camp
David" instead of outright denunciation would pave the way to normalization. As
US-led pressure to isolate Iran over its nuclear program intensifies, Iran's
bid to normalize ties with Egypt is considered a timely antidote. This is in
light of Egypt's official support of Iran's peaceful nuclear program (partly
via the Organization of Islamic Conference, OIC), as well as Egypt's ability to
influence the Arab response to the Shi'ite-led government in Baghdad.
As a result, Tehran needs to show a great deal more flexibility, such as by
removing the thorny issue of a street name commemorating Khaled Eslamboli, who
assassinated Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981. Egyptian Foreign Minister
Ahmed Aboul Gheit has stated that "90% of problems would be removed if Iran
removed the signs of Eslamboli".
From Iran's side, that is doable, and the Tehran City Council must now do what
it almost managed in 2004-05, that is, propose a new name for the street. The
conservative dailies may not like it, but Iran's national-security interests
should be allowed to prevail.
The daily Jomhouri Eslami has, however, rightly asked about the other 10% of
problems that went unexplained by the Egyptian foreign minister. In other
words, even after Tehran's complying with Cairo's demand, Cairo could still
backtrack its stated readiness and come up with excuses.
There is a recent example. Ahmadinejad's predecessor as president, Mohammad
Khatami, was personally dismayed when his overtures toward Egypt were rudely
rebuffed by the false accusations of Iran's involvement in the assassination of
an Egyptian diplomat, Ihab El-Sherif, in the summer of 2005.
That accusation, apparently planted by Egyptian intelligence, per a recent
article in Al-Ahram titled "Persian puzzle", was singularly responsible in
torpedoing any meaningful progress between Iran and Egypt during the Khatami
era. Clearly, a bulk of the Egyptian intelligentsia is now weighing in favor of
normalization, something that was relatively lacking in 2004, and that is a
Ahmadinejad's offer of an olive branch to Egypt has not been as well received
in Iran. Even conservative pundits have joined the hardliners in fastening on
to Khomeini's directive - without mentioning that Khomeini was a pragmatist who
allowed for shifting policies, as his decision in 1988 to end the war with Iraq
What Iran's critics of Ahmadinejad's Egyptian initiative fail to understand is
that Tehran and Cairo need not resolve all their outstanding differences to
have full diplomatic relations, and should upgrade relations to cooperate more
fully on Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and other regional issues.
As far as Iran is concerned, the Egyptian government must still overcome the
strong voices of opposition to normalization of relations with Iran, reflected
in the February editorial by Al-Ahram's editor-in-chief, Osama Saraya, titled
"The Iranian connection". It accused Iran of every conceivable wrongdoing
without an iota of appreciation for how an empowered Iran contributes to the
empowerment of abode of Islam.
"A Shi'ite, not an Islamic bomb", reads a recent headline of Egypt's
El-Gomhuriah, recycled by other Egyptian media, such as Raz al-Ysuf, sounding
alarms about the political and military ramifications of Iran's possession of
nuclear bombs. Egyptian leaders have repeatedly expressed concern about Iran's
nuclear program, and last December Foreign Minister Ahmed Abdul Gheit slammed
Ahmadinejad's statement that Iran is now a "nuclear country". "Nuclear states
are only those that have military nuclear capabilities," Gheit criticized.
In response, Iran has made extra efforts to convince the Arab world that its
nuclear program is entirely peaceful, the result being Egypt's endorsement of a
recent OIC resolution in support of Tehran's nuclear program. "Egypt
understands the view point of Iran," Gheit was quoted in the papers as saying
recently. And for good reasons: over the past two years, the International
Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has come up with new information regarding Egypt's
past nuclear "experiments" and even of Egypt's "ties" to Libya's now-disbanded
The IAEA has been unable to determine whether its discovery in 2004 of certain
particles and fusion products at an Egyptian nuclear facility were evidence of
a clandestine nuclear-weapons program. Egypt is reportedly embarking on a new,
rather ambitious plan to access nuclear technology for its economic and
electricity needs and, as a result, is keenly concerned that it does not fall
victim to the same kind of "double standards" it has been complaining to the
international community about with respect to Iran.
Confronted with a nuclear-armed Israel, Egypt has been using the Iran nuclear
standoff to turn the attention of the international community toward Israel's
nuclear arsenal, by linking the two issues and constantly exhorting the
Israelis to join the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Yet Egyptian officials know well that is not likely and Israel will continue
with its discreet "nuclear blackmail" of the Arab world for the foreseeable
future. Thus Iran's friendship, or even strategic alliance in a hypothetical
future, affects the Arab-Israeli military balance, and that is too important a
consideration for Egypt to overlook - for the sake of "sensational" issues such
as a street name.
In other words, much as Egypt may be calculated by the US as a "strategic
counterweight" to Iran, simultaneously Egypt benefits from Iran's counterweight
to Israel and, henceforth, Egypt's challenge is to find a suitable formula to
balance the competing interests.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New
Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of
"Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume
XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote "Keeping
Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review, and is author
Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.