An Egyptian rebuff for Iran
By Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani
CAIRO - Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad surprised many last month when he
announced his country's readiness to re-establish diplomatic relations with
Egypt. But last week the Egyptian Foreign Ministry appeared to dash hopes for
rapprochement, describing Iran's regional policies as a "danger to Egypt's
"The spread of Iranian influence in Iraq threatens Arab and Egyptian national
security," Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul-Gheit
said at a June 18 seminar hosted by the Egyptian Rotary Club. "This obliges
Cairo to curb its developing relationship with Iran."
The minister went on to accuse "Iranian elements" of supporting this month's
takeover of the Gaza Strip by militant Palestinian movement Hamas. "And since
Gaza is only a stone's throw from Egypt, this represents a danger to Egypt's
The minister's remarks follow several recent Iranian statements suggesting
Tehran's readiness to reactivate diplomatic relations with Egypt, frozen for
almost three decades.
"If the Egyptian government was willing, we would open our embassy in Cairo
that very day," Ahmadinejad was quoted as saying on May 15. "We see Egypt as a
part of the Islamic polity, and the two peoples look on one another as
Four days later, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki echoed the
sentiment. "Iran is keen to normalize relations," he was quoted as saying by
Iran's official news agency. "It is only waiting for a reply on the subject
At the time, Aboul-Gheit responded to the overture by calling Ahmadinejad's
remarks "positive", vowing to discuss the issue with Mottaki during a planned
visit to Cairo. A precise date for that meeting, however, was not announced.
Tehran first broke off relations with Cairo in 1979, in the wake of ayatollah
Ruhollah Khomeini's Islamic Revolution, after Egyptian president Anwar Sadat
signed the Camp David peace agreement with Israel. Cairo further alienated the
nascent Islamic Republic later the same year by granting political asylum to
the freshly deposed shah of Iran, Mohamed Reza Pahlavi.
Bilateral relations remained hostile through much of the 1980s, when Cairo
supported Saddam Hussein's Iraq against Iran in their long but inconclusive war
Since then, the relationship has seen a number of false starts.
In 2003, a brief meeting between Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and
then-Iranian president Mohammad Khatami in Geneva led to speculation that
reconciliation was imminent. At the time, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry stated
that the resumption of diplomatic ties was "an inevitable result of current
But the budding friendship was thwarted when the municipality of Tehran -
headed at the time by Ahmadinejad - refused to change the name of Khaled
Islambouli Street, one of the capital's major thoroughfares. Islambouli, who is
viewed as a hero within conservative Iranian circles, assassinated Sadat in
1981 for signing the Camp David treaty.
The offending place name was reportedly changed to Intifada Street the
following year. However, in a concession to outraged conservative sentiment, a
large mural honoring the assassin was later erected on the same street.
Last month, Aboul-Gheit again cited the issue as the overriding impediment to
"If Iran got rid of the mural and changed the name of the street ... it would
solve 90% of the problem," he said in a May 17 interview on satellite news
channel Al-Arabiya. "And it would allow the two countries to start thinking
about future relations."
According to local political analysts, however, Cairo is merely using the
Islambouli issue as political cover. The real reason for its reluctance to
reconcile with Iran, they say, has more to do with Egyptian subservience to US
policy in the region - a major plank of which has been the regional isolation
of the Islamic Republic.
"The street name and mural aren't the main impediments to rapprochement," said
Mohamed Abu al-Hadid, political analyst and head of state-owned print house Dar
al-Tahrir, which publishes prominent government daily Al-Gomhouriya. "The real
issue has more to do with the two countries' differing visions of the region
and their conflicting sets of allies and affiliations."
Abdel-Halim Kandil, editor-in-chief of opposition weekly Al-Karama, agreed with
this assessment, saying that Cairo's diplomatic options had been sorely limited
by its close ties to the US.
"Cairo fears an angry US response if it moves to re-establish relations with
Tehran," he said. "I doubt Egypt has received Washington's permission to take
such a step.
"As for the street name, that was changed three years ago," added Kandil, who
regularly travels to Iran to attend press events.
In any case, Iran's eagerness for better relations with Cairo - despite the
latter's position firmly within the US fold - appears sincere.
In late March, while visiting Egypt to participate in a religious conference,
former president Khatami referred to Egypt and Iran as "the two pillars of the
"While president of Iran, I spared no effort ... to restore diplomatic
relations," he was quoted as saying in the March 29 edition of independent
daily Al-Masri al-Youm. "Unfortunately, I was unable to realize this goal."
Khatami added that both he and President Mubarak "share a desire for good
relations", going on to express hope that the two sides would "summon the will
to realize this desire".
Despite these calls for reconciliation, however, Abu al-Hadid said the current
geopolitical dynamic in the Middle East was simply "unsuitable for full
"There are many crises going on in the region," he told Inter Press Service,
citing states of emergency in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. "Unfortunately,
Egypt-Iran relations are intimately bound up with these."
But while Cairo appears to be dragging its feet on the issue, state-controlled
religious institutions have shown less reluctance.
On June 6, Cairo's prestigious al-Azhar University, one of the highest
religious authorities in the Sunni Muslim world, agreed to normalize academic
relations with its Shi'ite counterparts in Iran.
"We welcome this scientific and cultural cooperation," Sheikh of al-Azhar
Mohamed Sayyed Tantawi was quoted as saying in the local press. He went on to
declare that there is "no conflict between Sunni and Shi'a Islam in terms of
their basic elements and beliefs".
According to Abu al-Hadid, however, the significance of such academic and
cultural exchanges should not be exaggerated.
"This agreement was made between two international academic institutions in an
effort to improve Sunni-Shi'a relations," he said. "It shouldn't be interpreted
as an indicator of warming political ties between the two countries."