Dr. Bahgat is professor at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Washington, DC. He is the uthor of The Gulf Monarchies: New Economic and Political Realities (1997), The Future of the Gulf (1997), The Persian Gulf at the Dawn of the New Millennium (1999), American Oil Diplomacy in the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea (2003), Israel and the Persian Gulf (2005), and Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in the Middle East (2007).
Compared with most of their neighbors, Egypt and Iran share several distinguishing characteristics. Along with Turkey, they are the most populous countries in the Middle East. A large population means a well-educated and talented workforce. Egyptian and Iranian workers and professionals (teachers, doctors and business people) have made significant contributions to socioeconomic development not only at home, but also in neighboring states. Finally, Cairo and Tehran trace their histories to some of the most ancient and glorious civilizations in the world. This multi-millennium-long history has created and reinforced a strong sense of Egyptian and Iranian nationalisms.
The combination of all these factors has cultivated and fed a controversial self-perception in both Cairo and Tehran. Most Egyptians perceive their country as the leading Arab state and claim, with some credibility, the status of a regional power. Similarly, Iran’s history and political culture underscore a strong sense of Persian pride and a deep-rooted perception of victimization. Stated differently, many Iranians believe, with some justification, that foreign powers (including Russia, Britain and the United States) have conspired to deny them their “natural” status as the dominant power in the Middle East.
This Egyptian-Iranian rivalry goes back several decades, with significant implications not only for bilateral relations but also for regional and international security. Shortly after the 1952 revolution in Egypt, President Gamal Abdel Nasser championed the cause of Arab nationalism and allied his country with the Soviet Union. The Pahlavi regime of Iran, with strong ties to the United States, Israel and conservative Arab states, pursued an opposite strategy. Diplomatic relations between Cairo and Tehran were severed in 1960 and restored in August 1970, one month before Nasser’s death.1
The drastic alteration of Egypt’s domestic and foreign-policy orientation under Nasser’s successor, Anwar Al-Sadat, brought Cairo and Tehran closer. Sadat initiated limited economic reform and political liberalization, ended Egypt’s alliance with the Soviet Union, established close relations with the United States and made peace with Israel. Arab nationalism ceased to be the driving force of Egypt’s foreign policy. These changes laid the foundation for a rapprochement between Cairo and Tehran. The shah reciprocated by allowing Soviet planes to fly over Iranian territory to deliver military supplies to Egypt during the 1973 war and endorsed the Egyptian-Israeli peace efforts that followed during the rest of the decade.
The honeymoon did not last long. Regional and domestic developments in Tehran and Cairo drastically changed the dynamics between the two nations. In 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the shah and established the Islamic Republic of Iran. The new Iranian leaders strongly condemned the recent Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. The tension was exacerbated when Sadat welcomed the deposed shah to Egypt (where he died and is buried). In 1981, Sadat was assassinated by an Islamist group and was succeeded by his vice president, Hosni Mubarak. Like most other Arab leaders, Mubarak followed Sadat’s policy and supported Iraq in its war with Iran (1980-88).
These developments in the late 1970s and early 1980s dealt a heavy blow to Egyptian-Iranian relations. In the following three decades, the two sides have failed to re-establish full diplomatic relations. Following Khomeini’s death in 1989, and particularly under the administration of Muhammad Khatemi, Tehran managed to restore relations with almost all the countries of the world, including the United Kingdom (though relations were severely damaged due to the Salman Rushdie affair). However, since early 1979, the Islamic Republic has not had diplomatic relations with three major countries: the United States, Israel and Egypt. Other “moderate” Sunni Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan have established diplomatic ties with Tehran. Indeed, Egypt is the only Arab country that has been without an embassy in Tehran since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
There is a large body of literature on American-Iranian relations and, to a lesser degree, on the confrontation between the Islamic Republic and the Jewish state. Little has been published on the vicissitudes of the relationship between Cairo and Tehran in the last 30 years. This study seeks to fill this void. I examine the areas of contention: sectarianism, Gaza (Hamas), Lebanon (Hezbollah), the Persian Gulf (Iraq, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates [UAE]), the nuclear issue and regional security. In the concluding section, I discuss the unsuccessful efforts to reach a rapprochement and whether a thaw is likely in the foreseeable future.
Since the 1979 revolution, Arab states in the Gulf (Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia) have felt threatened by Iran due to their large Shiite communities. Egypt, on the other hand, has a negligible Shiite minority. As a result, the Sunni-Shiite divide is less of an issue. Furthermore, unlike the Wahhabi preachers in Saudi Arabia, who hold strong opinions against Shiism, Egyptian clerics have adopted a more tolerant stance. Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s main seat of learning, acknowledges Shiism as a legitimate branch of Islam. In 1959, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, Muhammad Shaltut, issued a religious edict (fatwa) recognizing Shiism as “religiously correct.”2
While there is no credible evidence that Iran’s Islamic model has inspired Islamic groups in Egypt, the Egyptian government has often accused its Islamist opposition of receiving funding and other assistance from a foreign power (read Iran). Cairo has also charged Tehran with harboring members of Islamist organizations who have been convicted in Egyptian courts. Iran denies these allegations.
A major source of tension between Egypt and Iran is related to Khaled El-Islamboli, the army officer who assassinated Sadat in a military parade in 1981. The Iranian government subsequently named a street in Tehran after El-Islamboli. Mubarak made changing that street name a sine qua non for the resumption of ties with Iran. In 2004, the Tehran City Council changed the name to Intifada (uprising) to honor the Palestinians’ fight against Israel.3 The Council, however, failed to remove a commemorative mural of El-Islamboli.
Under the Pahlavi regime, Iran had extensive economic and security ties with Israel, but never granted it official recognition. This close cooperation with Israel (and the United States) was a major reason, among others, for the 1979 revolution. Since its inception, the Islamic Republic has adopted a confrontational approach towards the Jewish state. Iran strongly supports the “Palestinians’ right to resist the Israeli occupation of their land.” This posture has brought Tehran closer to Hamas and distanced it from the secular and more accommodationist Fatah. Clearly, Iran and the Islamic Palestinian organizations (mainly Hamas) share the same strategic vision — that military resistance is the right path to liberating Palestine. This shared political viewpoint gives Iran two additional advantages: it can appeal to the Arab masses, and it can break the sectarian barrier by cooperating with Sunni movements.
Egypt, on the other hand, was the first Arab country to publicly sign a peace treaty with Israel and endorse diplomacy as the appropriate means to end the Arab-Israeli conflict. Egypt is also concerned about the support and sympathy Hamas receives from the Muslim Brotherhood, the main opposition group to the government in Cairo. The ejection of Fatah from Gaza in 2006 and the subsequent Palestinian in-fighting have exerted increased pressure on the Egyptian government. In response, Cairo has pursued a threefold strategy. Egypt strongly supports Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority as the only legitimate government, seeks to mediate between Fatah and Hamas and condemns what it considers Iranian interference in Palestinian and Arab affairs.
Within this context, President Mubarak, referring to the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, sounded the alarm: “Iran had created an Islamic republic in Egypt’s backyard.”4 In April 2009, Mubarak said that Egypt’s enemies were cynically taking advantage of the Palestinians for their narrow interests and told them to “stop exploiting the Palestinian issue and be warned of Egypt’s wrath.”5
Iran has historical ties with the Shiite community in Lebanon. In the early 1980s, Tehran played a crucial role in creating Hezbollah and has since strongly supported it. Indeed, Hezbollah is considered one of the strongest footholds Iran has established in the Arab world since the 1979 revolution. Despite this very close cooperation, it is important to emphasize that Hezbollah enjoys some autonomy; its leaders do not take orders from Tehran or seek to create a theocracy in Lebanon.
Egypt sees Hezbollah as an Iranian pawn that seeks to promote Tehran’s interests and destabilize regional security. In the 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah (summer 2006), Egypt initially blamed the Shiite organization for provoking the Israelis. However, the broad military operation and widespread destruction of Lebanon compelled Egyptian leaders to condemn Israel and support Hezbollah. Egyptian efforts to mediate between Lebanese political factions were not successful; however, the parties were able to reach an agreement in Doha, Qatar. In the 2009 Lebanese election, Cairo was pleased to see Iranian-backed Hezbollah lose to the Sunni coalition, which all the moderate Arab states had supported.
The tense relations between Egypt and Hezbollah were further escalated in April 2009, when Egypt announced that it had broken up a Hezbollah cell plotting attacks on its soil. Hassan Nasrallah, secretary-general of Hezbollah, denied accusations that his organization was trying to destabilize Egypt or planning attacks on Egyptian targets. He claimed that Hezbollah had sought to smuggle military equipment to Gaza to help the Palestinians: “If helping our occupied, battered and hungry Palestinian brothers is a crime, then I confess to this crime.”6 The Egyptian government has since used this case to condemn Hezbollah’s and Iran’s attempt to compromise its national security.
GULF ARAB STATES
As a major regional power, Egypt’s perception of its national security and vital interests is not confined to its borders, but extends to the entire Middle East. President Mubarak, along with King Abdullah II of Jordan, has raised alarm over the ascendancy of Shiism. The king has warned of an emerging “Shiite crescent,” and Mubarak has declared that the Arab-Shiites are more loyal to Iran than to their own states.7 (Later, President Mubarak tried to calm the fury, saying he was referring to spiritual rather than political allegiance.)
In addition to this concern about the loyalty of Arab Shiites, Egypt, like the rest of the Arab world, supports the UAE in its territorial dispute with Iran over the three islands in the Gulf — Abu Mussa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs. The two countries have made conflicting claims to the islands for the last several decades; both the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have backed the UAE. The significance of this dispute should be neither exaggerated nor minimized. But it has not impeded good relations between Iran and the Arab world — including the UAE, which enjoys extensive political and economic ties with Tehran.
Over the last three decades, Iranian officials have occasionally made statements claiming Bahrain as part of Iran. The latest was uttered in February 2009 by Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, former speaker of the Majlis (parliament) and current adviser to the supreme leader. To show solidarity with a fellow Arab state, President Mubarak (and Jordan’s King Abdullah) flew to Manama and met with the Bahraini king.8
One of Egypt’s greatest concerns is that Iraq is moving away from the Arab world and toward Iran. The Islamic Republic shares long borders with Iraq, and the majority of Iraqis, like the majority of Iranians, are Shiites. Furthermore, many of the current Iraqi leaders fled Saddam Hussein’s repression for Iran, returning home only after the fall of his regime. In short, Iran enjoys tremendous advantages in Iraq over Sunni Arab states in terms of its soft power and its close connection with many Iraqi ethnic and sectarian groups.
Worried about Iran’s influence and skeptical of the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad, Egypt and other Sunni Arab states kept their distance from the Iraqi authority and were hesitant to establish economic and diplomatic relations with it. Taking the lead in breaking the deadlock, Egypt was the first Arab country to send a resident ambassador, Ihab El-Sharif, to Baghdad in 2006. One month later, he was abducted and killed. Al-Ahram, the leading semi-official Egyptian newspaper, claimed that Iranian intelligence was involved in El-Sharif’s death, but both governments denied the report.9
Since the 2003 war, Egyptian and Iranian officials have participated in a number of regional and international conferences to improve the situation in Iraq. These joint efforts do not seem to have alleviated Egyptian and Arab anxiety over the Iranian role. Indeed, it is likely that Tehran’s influence will further rise with the American withdrawal. Egypt seems to prefer a strong Sunni leader or a secular Shiite to take control in Baghdad. However, the current Iraqi government, with strong ties to Tehran, has made significant progress in stabilizing the country. Egypt and other Arab countries are coming to realize that they have to accept the new realities in Baghdad, deal with its elected government and support reconciliation between the country’s ethnic and sectarian groups.
IRAN’S NUCLEAR PROGRAM
Since the early 2000s, the world has learned more about Iran’s nuclear program. After a combination of U.S. sanctions and unsuccessful European negotiations (led by Britain, France and Germany), the world’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), referred the Iranian file to the UN Security Council. The Council has already issued three resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran to compel Tehran to stop its nuclear program. At the time of this writing, these diplomatic efforts have yet to bear fruit. Still, it is important to highlight two points. First, Iran categorically denies any interest in making nuclear weapons. Second, the IAEA’s assessment of the Iranian nuclear program is mixed. While the agency complains about lack of transparency and limited cooperation, it has never verified that Iran is making nuclear weapons.
Iran’s nuclear program (for peaceful or military purposes) has put pressure on the Egyptian government in many directions. First, Iran’s advances in nuclear technology and its confrontation with Western powers further confirm Tehran’s claims to regional leadership. Second, Iran’s nuclear program has directed attention to the only nuclear power in the Middle East: Israel. Many Egyptians and Arabs claim that Western powers apply a double standard. Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League, sums up this feeling: “It is not possible to forget Israel and talk about the Iranian ‘threat’ all the time. Iran’s nuclear program is not a threat to the Arab world or world peace. Israel is the real threat, since it possesses a nuclear arsenal and refuses to sign the Non-proliferation Treaty.”10 Within this context, it is important to remember that, since 1974, Egypt and Iran have been calling for making the entire Middle East a nuclear-weapons-free zone.
Third, Egypt and other Arab countries oppose military strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities by Israel or the United States and call for a diplomatic solution. They understand that another war would further destabilize the entire Middle East. Fourth, in order to defuse tension and assure its Arab neighbors of its peaceful intentions, Iran has offered to share its nuclear expertise with them. In a visit to Egypt in December 2007, Ali Larijani, former secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and current speaker of the Majlis, stated: “Iran is ready to offer Egypt its nuclear experiences under the supervision and regulations of the International Atomic Energy Agency.”11
Fifth, many officials and scholars have argued that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and that countries such as Egypt (and Saudi Arabia) would seek to acquire a similar capability. These assertions need to be scrutinized. True, Egyptian pride would be hurt if Tehran, rather than Cairo, makes the bomb. But Egypt does not need nuclear weapons. The literature on nuclear proliferation suggests that security is the main factor explaining why some countries “go nuclear.” Egypt is not threatened by any foreign power. Furthermore, if Egypt pursued a nuclear option, it would pay a high price (losing American financial and diplomatic assistance).
Finally, in order not to fall behind in nuclear technology and to meet their growing need for energy, Egypt and other Arab countries have considered and negotiated building nuclear plants with France, Russia and the United States. These nuclear plants are under strict IAEA supervision and have nothing to do with nuclear weapons.
Shortly after Saddam Hussein was deposed, Iran seemed to emerge as the regional power. Higher oil prices contributed to economic and political stability in Tehran; the Shiite-dominated government consolidated its hold on power in Baghdad; and Hezbollah fighters were able to resist the Israeli invasion in summer 2006. President Ahmadinejad was admired by some Egyptians and other Arabs for challenging the United States and Israel.
Alarmed by these developments, Egyptian leaders paid more attention to Shiite-Sunni and Persian-Arab cleavages. Israeli leaders sought to highlight the “Iranian threat” and downplay Arab-Israeli animosity. In April 2009, Israeli President Shimon Peres argued, “The collision between the Middle East, which is Sunni Arab, and the Iranian minority that seeks to take it over, is inevitable.”12 A month later, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu echoed the same sentiment: “The struggle in the Middle East is not a struggle between peoples or a struggle between religions. It is a struggle between extremists and moderates, a struggle between those who seek life and those who spread violence and death.”13 Officially, the Egyptian government begs to differ. President Mubarak’s spokesman, Suleiman Awwad, has stated, “Egypt does not agree with Israel’s view that Iran’s ambitions are a higher priority for the region than Mideast peace.”14
Despite this official denial, it can be argued that the overall Egyptian-Israeli relationship is warmer than that between Cairo and Tehran. Egyptian leaders meet with their Israeli counterparts more often than with Iranian officials. There is an Israeli embassy in Cairo and an Egyptian one in Tel Aviv; Egypt and the Islamic Republic have yet to exchange envoys.
Finally, three developments in the late 2000s suggest that Iran’s regional ascendance seems to be losing steam. First, the 2009 election in Lebanon, which the Sunni coalition won, was seen not only as a defeat for Hezbollah, but also as a blow to the group’s main backer, Iran. Second, the recent reconciliation between Syria and several Arab countries and the rapprochement between Damascus and Washington have the potential to weaken the decades-long alliance between Syria and Iran. Third, domestic turmoil in the aftermath of the presidential election in Iran has underscored the divisions within the regime and raised questions about its legitimacy. Despite his rhetoric and defiance, Ahmadinejad is likely to be a weaker and more vulnerable leader in his second term than in his first. The Egyptian press extensively covered Iran’s widespread political protests and the authorities’ response. The message, it seems, was to discredit the Iranian model.
A POTENTIAL THAW
The lack of full diplomatic relations between Cairo and Tehran does not mean a complete absence of dialogue. The two governments maintain interest sections in each other’s capital. Their officials interact with each other in international conferences. In addition, several top Iranian officials have visited Cairo, held talks with their Egyptian counterparts and met with President Mubarak.
Relations between Cairo and Tehran improved substantially when President Khatami was in power (1997-2005). In 2001, President Mubarak met Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, the highest-level meeting between Egyptian and Iranian officials since the 1979 revolution.15 The first meeting between the two countries’ heads of state took place on the sidelines of the UN technology summit in Geneva in December 2003. In June 2006, Ali Larijani became the highest-ranking Iranian official to visit Egypt since the 1979 revolution.16 Eighteen months later, in January 2008, Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, the speaker of Iran’s Majlis, visited Egypt and held talks with President Mubarak.17 Finally, in May 2008, President Ahmadinejad offered to restore ties with Egypt, saying Iran was ready to open an embassy in Cairo as soon as Egypt agreed to do the same in Tehran. He has since repeated the offer.
Despite these high-level contacts, full diplomatic relations have yet to be restored. Statements by Iranian and Egyptian officials suggest that Tehran is eager to end the 30-year estrangement. Indeed, in the last several years Iranian officials have sought to attract Egypt into a close alliance. An editorial in the Tehran Times argued, “The continuation of this state of affairs, in which Iran and Egypt have no diplomatic relations, is not in the interests of the Islamic world.”18 It is important to remember that Iran has been under U.S. sanctions for the last 30 years and that most European powers have increasingly taken the American side, due to the failure of their negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. Warmer relations with a Middle Eastern powerhouse like Egypt would alleviate some of this diplomatic and economic pressure. Furthermore, the Iranians believe an alliance among Tehran, Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo would stabilize the region and weaken American influence.
This Iranian eagerness to form a regional alliance with Egypt does not seem to be shared by Egypt. Cairo remains suspicious of Iran’s intentions and sees little benefit, if any, from warmer relations with Tehran. Domestically, Cairo is concerned about Iranian ties to Egyptian Islamist organizations. Regionally, the two powers pursue different, and often conflicting, strategies with regard to Iraq, Israel and Lebanon. Internationally, the Bush administration sought to isolate Iran. While the Obama administration has offered to “engage” Iran, this offer would not last forever. Washington is seriously considering imposing severe diplomatic and economic sanctions on Iran if negotiations with Tehran over its nuclear program do not succeed. Under such circumstances, a rapprochement with Iran is not likely to benefit Egypt. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu El-Gheit summed up the government’s stance: “Iran has been trying to involve itself in Arab problems so as to gain influence that will serve it in its struggle vis-à-vis the West. Egypt believes that Iran has a problem with the Arab world and that its interference in Arab problems is detrimental to Arab interests.”19
These conflicting motives, perceptions and strategies suggest that a rapprochement between Cairo and Tehran is unlikely in the foreseeable future.
2 Jailan Zayan, “Iranian Influence a Double-Edged Sword for Egypt’s Shiites,” Daily News, November 12, 2006, www.thedailynewsegypt.com/printerfriendly.aspx?ArticleID=3898.
3 Rasha Saad, “Coming Soon,” Ahram Weekly, January 21, 2004, www.weekly.ahram.org.eg/print/2004/673/eg2.htm.
4 Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff, “Analysis: Iran’s Prints Are All over Alleged Egypt Terror Ring,” Haaretz, April 10, 2009.
5 “Mubarak Warns Iran of Cairo’s Fury,” Jerusalem Post, April 23, 2009.
6 “Nasrallah: Hezbollah Running Guns to Gaza through Egypt,” Haaretz, April 10, 2009.
7 Roula Khalaf, “New Order Fans Fears of Shiite Crescent,” Financial Times, May 1, 2006.
8 Morocco severed diplomatic ties with Iran.
9 Mona El-Naggar, “Egyptian Paper Accuses Iranians of Complicity in Envoy’s Death,” The New York Times, January 29, 2007.
10 “Arab World Has No Problem with Iran: Amr Moussa,” The Tehran Times, May 18, 2009.
11 “Larijani Says Iran Ready for Peaceful Nuclear Cooperation with Egypt,” Mehr News, www.mehrnews.com/en/NewsPrint.aspx?NewsID=614017.
12 “Peres: Clash between Iran, Sunni Arabs Is Inevitable,” Haaretz, April 13, 2009.
13 Charles Levinson, “Netanyahu Asks Egypt for Backing,” The Wall Street Journal, May 12, 2009.
14 “Egypt: Iran Less Important Than Peace Process,” Associated Press, www.nytimes.com/aponline/2009/05/31/world/AP-ML-Egypt-Israel.Iran.html.
15 “Iran and Egypt Failed to Restore Relations, Agreed to Disagree,” Iran Press Service, www.iran-press-service.com/articles_2001/feb_2001/iran_egypt_d8_26201.h….
16 Adam Morrow, “A Thaw in Egypt-Iran Relations?” Inter Press Service News Agency, www.ipsnews.net/print.asp?idnews=33726.
17 “Iranian Parliament Speaker Meets Egyptian President,” The Tehran Times, January 30, 2008.
18 Hassan Hanizadh, “Iran-Egypt Rapprochement Key to Regional Convergence,” The Tehran Times, May 21, 2007.
19 A Savyon, Y. Mansharof & L. Azuri, “Iran’s Attempts to Renew Relations with Egypt,” Middle East Media Research Institute, www.memri.org/bin/printerfriendly/pf.cgi.