Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Should Egypt embrace Iran's overtures?

By Claudia Schwartz


After almost 30 years of mutual tension, Iran is taking steps to improve its ties with Egypt. The Islamic Republic cut off contacts following the Camp David peace treaty signed between Egypt and Israel. Antagonism intensified when Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was granted asylum by Anwar Sadat and later Iran named a street in memory of the Egyptian president's assassin, Khaled Islambouli. Iran's hostility to the United States and Egypt's close alliance with Washington is a further impediment to normalization.

The stirrings of rapprochement have included diplomatic meetings between representatives of the two countries - most significantly the visit to Cairo at the end of last year of Ali Larijani, a senior adviser to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and a landmark telephone conversation between Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This diplomacy has been bolstered by the restoration of some economic and cultural ties.

Iran's overtures to Egypt mirror its broader regional strategy, namely courting the Sunni Arab world. This comes in response to the Bush administration's attempt to consolidate an anti-Iranian Sunni bloc in the Middle East, which formed a significant part of President George W. Bush's recent tour of the region. Iran's efforts have led to a thaw with leading Sunni Arab countries, allowing Ahmadinejad's attendance at the last Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Qatar, his journey to Mecca for the annual pilgrimage, and his visit to Baghdad on Sunday. In the words of Iranian presidential adviser Samarej Hashemi, renewed relations with Egypt would mean "the enemies of Islam and Islamic unity would be segregated."

Egypt, being one of America's strongest Middle East allies, provides fertile ground in which Iran can plant seeds to consolidate its gains in the Arab world. However, despite positive beginnings, there remain obstacles in the way of renewed friendship. Tehran's support for the Syrian-backed Lebanese opposition and its meddling in the Gaza Strip through Hamas and Islamic Jihad are major hurdles that Iran and Egypt must cross.

The current political climate is tense, amid signs tha Mubarak will not participate in the forthcoming Arab League summit in Damascus unless the Lebanese crisis is resolved. Egypt and Saudi Arabia believe Syria is blocking efforts to allow the election of a new Lebanese president. They have both been disappointed with Iran, which has paramount influence over Hizbullah, for doing nothing to help find a resolution. News reports suggest that Iran remains deeply reluctant to cross Syria in Lebanon.

Iran's interference on the Palestinian scene, particularly its support for Hamas and Islamic Jihad, has also marred Iranian-Egyptian relations. The recent Hamas border breach with Egypt, which heightened Cairo's internal security fears, was but one facet of the two countries' disagreement over how to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Another is that Egypt remains committed to peace with Israel, while Iran rejects Israel's right to exist.

Egypt's need for American aid is another obstacle. The United States, which provides Egypt with $1.3 billion annually, will not take kindly to improved Egyptian-Iranian relations. Following Congress' withholding of $100 million as a result of Egypt's failure to prevent weapons smuggling into Gaza, Cairo will be careful before risking watering down further US financial support.

For Israel, strengthened Egyptian-Iranian relations are a worrying prospect too. Not only does Israel fear a concomitant cooling in its relation with Egypt - on which it relies to be its main mediator in the Arab world - but it is also fearful that if ties improve between Cairo and Tehran, Egypt would be less able to counterbalance Iran's interference in South Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza, through its support for Hizbullah and militant Palestinian groups.

Egypt must hedge its bets when it comes to Iran. In the short term, it cannot rely on the US to contain the Islamic Republic, particularly after the release last year of a US National Intelligence Estimate asserting that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. At the same time, the Egyptians are uncertain that better relations with Iran will push it to reduce its meddling in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, or help resolve the Lebanese crisis.

Taking into account the likely repercussions of a rapprochement, full diplomatic relations between the two countries would be asymmetrical: They would serve Iran to Egypt's detriment. Iran would profit from a renewed stance in the Sunni world and a weakening of American efforts to isolate it. Egypt, in turn, would lose American confidence, face a more destabilized situation in Gaza, and may find itself partly neutralized in how to respond to Iranian actions. In a worst-case scenario, Iran would gain latitude to divide the Arab countries and pursue its efforts to become a regional power.

That's why an improvement in relations between Egypt and Iran, while it might deliver change in the region, might not deliver the kinds of changes that necessarily elicit optimism.


Claudia Schwartz is a Legacy Heritage fellow at the Transatlantic Institute.

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.



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