melts in Iran's cold war with
Egypt By Robert Tait
The 2,400 kilometers or so separating
Cairo from Tehran might have been enough to keep
relations at arm's length. But for the past three
decades, the realities of geography dividing Egypt
and Iran have been stretched into a yawning chasm
by the shadow of one Khalid Islambouli.
The Islamist army officer who assassinated
Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981 in revenge
for signing the Camp David Accords with Israel has
long stood as a symbol of the political and
ideological divide between the two countries.
Executed along with three co-conspirators for the
crime the following year, Islambouli acquired
pariah status in Egypt - an embodiment of the
perils lurking behind Islamic
In Iran, by contrast, he is
renowned as a hero and a martyr, a privilege
reflected in a massive mural painting in central
Tehran. One of the capital's most prestigious
streets also bears his name, in what Egyptian
officials have regarded as a provocation and a
block to restoring long-severed diplomatic ties.
Now, however, the ghost of Islambouli is
close to being laid to rest.
of ties' In what may be a blow to the
interests of Israel and the United States, Egypt
has declared itself ready to re-establish links
with Tehran in the wake of February's overthrow of
former president Hosni Mubarak, who saw Iran's
Islamic regime as a bitter foe.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil al-Arabi signaled
a thaw on March 30 when he voiced hopes for an
"expansion of ties" with Iran. His comments came a
month after Egypt - in the wake of Mubarak's
departure - set Western alarm bells ringing by
allowing Iranian naval ships to sail through the
Suez Canal for the first time in 30 years.
Reasons to be wary were compounded this
month by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry's
spokesman, Mehna Bakhoum, who declared: "We are
prepared to take a different view of Iran. The
former regime used to see Iran as an enemy, but we
The warm words have been
reciprocated by Tehran, where the Foreign Ministry
has confirmed it is preparing to appoint its first
ambassador to Cairo since links were cut in 1979.
The contrast could hardly be greater with
the tone set by Mubarak who, according to a US
diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, told
Senator John Kerry that the Iranians "are big fat
liars and justify their lies because they believe
it is for a higher purpose".
nightmares For the United States and
Israel especially, the prospect of glacial
relations between Iran and Egypt being replaced by
a close alliance is the stuff of nightmares.
Even the prospect of an Iranian embassy in
Cairo is enough to set Israeli teeth on edge,
according to Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born
commentator based in Israel with the Middle East
Economic and Political Analysis Company.
"For Israel, any country in this region,
especially one that has borders with it, having a
relationship with Iran is not good," Javedanfar
says. "Any extra Iranian boots on the ground is a
sign of concern for Israel because, as far as the
Israeli government sees it, perhaps they could use
their influence to encourage the public to turn
even more against Israel, or perhaps to use the
territory of that country to gather intelligence
against Israel or even, in the case of an attack
against Iran's nuclear installations, perhaps that
territory could be used to attack Israeli
A more specific Israeli
grievance is Arabi's stated intention to repair
Mubarak's hostile relations with Hamas, the
Islamist organization that runs Gaza and which has
strong backing from Iran.
Javedanfar, such a move is likely to develop into
a new source of competition between Iran and Egypt
as the Egyptian leadership tries to wean Hamas off
its dependence on Tehran.
"I think Egypt
is going to change its attitude and its
relationship with Hamas. There's going to be an
improvement," Javedanfar says. "That will, of
course, please the Iranians. However, I don't see
the Egyptians backing Iran's line when it comes to
Hamas because that could damage the relationship
with the United States, which is also important
"And I think somewhere along the
line, the Egyptians are going to also compete with
Iran because having influence over Hamas gives
them leverage. And I don't see the Egyptians
handing over that leverage to the Islamic Republic
Western umbrella Moreover, analysts say, fears of a new
Iranian-Egyptian alliance are unfounded.
Mustafa al-Labbad, director of the
Cairo-based Center for Regional and Strategic
Studies, says "opening a new page" with Iran would
not alter Egypt's other relationships,
particularly those with Arab Gulf states such as
Saudi Arabia, which are highly suspicious of
Nor are renewed ties
likely to result in a strategic alliance.
"No, the political systems in both
countries are very much different," Labbad says.
"Egypt is under the Western umbrella and [with]
Iran, this is not the case. There is contradiction
in the national interests between Egypt and Iran
in Iraq and in the Persian Gulf. So it would be a
normal relationship at the maximum, but not a
strategic alliance. A strategic alliance needs
more from both parties, and I don't think the
circumstances are allowing for such a strategic
Egypt's commitment to the Camp
David Accords, the lynchpin of its ties with the
West, is also unlikely to be challenged, Labbad
says, despite Iran's unflinching hostility toward
the Jewish state.
"I don't think relations
between Israel and Egypt will be affected. Nobody
in Egypt is questioning the Camp David treaty and
nobody in Egypt is willing to have tension with
Israel," Labbad says. "Even the Muslim Brothers,
if they will come to be a majority in the next
Egyptian parliament, they are not capable and they
are not willing even to challenge this treaty."
Yet whatever the limitations, a new
relationship would be a real gain for Iran's
theocratic system, which would stand to gain more
than the new regime in Cairo, Javedanfar says.
"If you look at the profit-and-loss
accounts of both countries - what are the profit
and losses for Iran to form relations with Egypt;
what are the profit and losses for Egypt to form
relations with Iran? The country that comes up
with the healthier balance sheet is Iran,
especially because now Iran is more isolated in
the region, so improvement in relations with Egypt
will come at a very crucial time for Iran.
"In terms of Iran's efforts to flex its
muscles in the region, having an embassy in Cairo,
plus sending warships through the Suez Canal, will
help its ambitions to project its power in the