December 28, 2009 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 574

In Attempts to Break its Isolation, Iran Makes Creative Overtures Towards Egypt, U.S.

December 28, 2009 | By A. Savyon*
Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 574


As the Iranian regime made efforts to maintain its grip at home and to contain the fresh outbreak of civil unrest this past month, it has also made diplomatic gestures towards its sworn enemies, Egypt and the U.S. These gestures, apparently aimed at reducing tensions, included also an Iranian willingness to renew diplomatic relations with Egypt, which were cut off shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. This initiative was also apparently an attempt to break through the diplomatic siege imposed on Iran, in light of the possibility that the nuclear crisis will worsen after December 31, 2009.

Iran's overtures also parallel Saudi efforts to pull Syria away from the Iranian axis – Iran is trying to pull Egypt away from the Saudi axis.

Taking a Conciliatory Tone Towards the U.S.

In the past few months, Iran has been conducting both a public and a secret dialogue with the U.S. – the "Great Satan." Western sources reported on the nuclear deal that the U.S., headed by President Barack Obama, had tried in vain to force on Iran at the December 18-19, 2009 Vienna summit. While on the public level, Iranian officials delivered the usual belligerent, defiant, and scornful warnings, it is noteworthy that Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki chose not to attack the U.S. at the sixth annual Bahrain Dialogue on regional security, held December 11-13, 2009 in the capital Manama.[1]

Equally noteworthy was the puzzling and surprising declaration by U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary of State Jeffery Feltman at the conference, that the U.S. has no evidence of Iranian involvement in the Houthi conflict in northern Yemen: "Many of our friends and partners have talked to us about the possibility of outside support to the Houthis, and we have heard the theories about Iranian support to the Houthis," Feltman said, adding, "To be frank, we don't have independent information about this."[2]

An additional surprising statement came from Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, who told Iranian television in a December 24 interview that Iran was ready to transfer 400 kg of 3.5%-enriched uranium to Turkey or to any other country, but that each side had to carry out its part of the deal.[3] It will be remembered that Iran had previously rejected the proposal by International Atomic Energy Agency director Mohamed ElBaradei.[4]

Iran's Initiative to Renew Relations with Egypt

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei took advantage of the Cairo visit by his associate Majlis speaker Ali Larijani for the Islamic Inter-Parliamentary Union (IIPU) convention to have him meet at length with the entire Egyptian leadership, especially with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, between December 20 and 23.[5]

Larijani and Mubarak. Press TV, Iran, December 20, 2009

This meeting, the first of its kind after 30 years of severed relations, ended with positive statements by Larijani. According to statements by Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, there was no disagreement between the countries regarding the need to help the Palestinians realize their goals, but only on the way to do so.[6] However, other Egyptian officials did not respond positively to Iran's overtures. The daily Al-Nahar has reported that, during his visit to the Gulf states last week, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak conveyed to them a reassuring message from Larijani, to the effect that in the event of an Israeli attack on its nuclear facilities, Iran would retaliate only against targets in Israel itself. Howver, if attacked from American military bases in the Gulf, Iran would retaliate against these bases, and the Gulf states must therefore ask the U.S. not to use these bases to launch attacks against Iranian targets. [7]

At a press conference following his meeting with Mubarak, Larijani called the conversation "productive," saying that it had "focused on regional issues… The two countries' vision on bilateral relations is positive, which is key to the development of the relationship between them… the positive potential in it must be taken advantage of…"

Referring to the issue of the fighting in northern Yemen, Larijani said, "Our problem is with the Saudi brothers, and not with the Yemenis." He condemned the murder of Shi'ites in Yemen, and promised that Iran would spare no effort to resolve the issue.[8]

At another Cairo press conference, on December 22, Larijani said, "There is no doubt that Iran and Egypt are the two most important and influential countries in the region… [therefore] they must become close to each other, and everyone must help this [trend]… There is no doubt that Israel will never want such an Iran-Egypt rapprochement, but we hope that all the talks and meetings will prepare the ground for this… Iran's strategy is that under current conditions, the Islamic countries will draw as close as possible to each other, even though there will be disagreements on various issues… There must be no doubt that the unity [among] the Islamic countries is aimed at enabling their governments to cooperate together vis-à-vis… the most important challenge facing us – Israel."[9]

However, Larijani denied Egyptian media reports that he had given Mubarak a letter with a proposal and an outline for reconciliation between the countries.[10]

Ahmadinejad's Associates Express Support for the Overtures

While circles identified with Hashemi Rafsanjani were harshly critical of Larijani's meeting with Mubarak, senior Iranian officials close to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad expressed support for it.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mottaki said during a December 24 interview on Iranian television that Iran had defined to Egypt its views with regard to the possibility of establishing relations between the two countries, but that Iran would not advance the matter as long as it saw no Egyptian decision making on it.[11]

In an interview with Khabaronline, Majlis National Security Committee chairman Ala Al-Din Boroujerdi said that there was no obstacle to establishing Iran-Egypt relations. He explained that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's orders to sever relations with Egypt belonged to the past, and were no longer valid.[12]

Majlis National Security Committee member Heshmatollah Falahat-Pisheh said that it was a regime decision that Larijani meet with Mubarak, and that this decision was made at the highest levels in Iran. He said that in light of the low point in relations between the two countries, "the visit could play a critical role in settling the tensions between them and in establishing broad relations between them." He added that the reason that the relations between the two countries had not yet been revived was U.S. president Bush's "Greater Middle East" plan, unveiled in 2004, which had led to a new round of tensions because it aspired to drive a wedge between the Arab world and Iran. He explained that some disagreement between the two countries was natural, but that external elements were exacerbating it.[13]

Also, three Majlis National Security Committee members – Esmail Kowsari, Mohammad Karim Abedi, and Hossein Ebrahimi – said that Iran was interested in renewing relations with Egypt, but that the matter was subject to delay because the U.S. and Israel were making decisions for Egypt, and also because of the Camp David agreement.[14]

Ebrahimi, who is head of the Majlis National Security Committee Foreign Relations Subcommittee, rejected the internal criticism in Iran over the Larijani-Mubarak meeting, and announced: "Our relations with Egypt are very important, and although its government is dependent [on the U.S.], it people seeks peace… and the Wahhabi stream, that has infiltrated into most of the Arab countries, does not enjoy such status in Egypt." He said that Ayatollah Khomeini's and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's ban on relations applies only to Israel: "The talks with Egypt could remove the obstacles to relations with it. Egypt, in our view, is the heart of the Arab world, and therefore the price should be paid for relations with it if necessary." He also rejected preconditions for renewing relations with Egypt, explaining, "We must not look for pretexts [not] to establish relations with it… our actions with [Egypt] must have broad horizons, and must show tolerance."[15]

In an interview with the official Iranian news agency IRNA, Ebrahimi enumerated the advantages of renewing Iran-Egypt relations, the main ones of which were "using Egypt as a lever against Israel," "saving the Islamic world from imperialism and from being exploited by it," and exporting Iran's Islamic Revolution: "The Islamic countries will take a new breath, and perhaps in this way the scent of the revolution and of the holy Islamic regime will reach their noses." Other advantages that he named were that such relations would help the Palestinians, and thus also some other countries in the region, and would calm tensions between Iran and other countries.[16]

* A. Savyon is director of MEMRI's Iranian Media Project

[1] The conference is held by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a British think tank.

[2],, December 13, 2009

[3] Fars (Iran), December 27, 2009.

[4] See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 557, "The Vienna Nuclear Talks – and Iranian/Western Rashomon," October 25, 2009, The Vienna Nuclear Talks – and Iranian/Western Rashomon and MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 564, "Iran's Answer to the West: 'Iran Has Lost Its Patience'; 'We've Already Begun Production [of 20%-Enriched Uranium],'" November 17, 2009, Iran's Answer to the West: "Iran Has Lost Its Patience'; 'We've Already Begun Production [of 20%-Enriched Uranium]'

[5] Larijani met with the top regime members and with public figures December 20-23, 2009, including Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu Al-Gheit, Arab League secretary Amr Moussa, Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, Egyptian People's Assembly chairman Ahmad Fathi Sorour, Organization of the Islamic Conference Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, and Muhammad Hassanein Heikal, former advisor to late Egyptian president Gamal Abd Al-Nasser, as well as with Al-Azhar University president Muhammad Ahmad Tayyeb. Majlis website, Iran, December 24, 2009.

[6] Suleiman said that "Iran and Egypt have much common ground, and also if there are disagreements, they are not large, but small… Regarding the Palestinian issue, we share a common goal, and it is helping the Palestinian people attain its goal. Perhaps there are disagreements [between us] with regard to the method, but this can be solved via dialogue." Mehr, Fars, Iran; Al-Gumhouriyya, Egypt; Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, London, December 21, 2009.

[7] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), December 29, 2009

[8] Fars (Iran), December 21, 2009

[9] Mehr (Iran), December 22, 2009. Upon his return from Cairo, Larijani said that "Iran's strategy is utilizing all the potential in the Islamic world for comprehensive participation in the struggle against the Zionist regime," and that the disagreements between the two countries were "tactical," but that their "strategies are no different." ILNA, Iran, December 23, 2009.

[10] IRNA (Iran), December 22, 2009

[11] Mehr (Iran), December 25, 2009

[12] He claimed that Egypt's demand that the name of Tehran's Khaled Islambouli street be changed (it was named after the assassin of the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat) was only an excuse not to renew relations. Khabaronline, Iran, December 25, 2009.

[13] Majlis website (Iran), December 23, 2009

[14] Siyasset-e Rooz (Iran), December 23, 2009

[15] Mehr (Iran), December 23, 2009.

[16] IRNA (Iran), December 23, 2009.

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