May 24, 2023 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1696

Debate In Egypt Regarding Possible Rapprochement With Iran

May 24, 2023 | By B. Chernitsky*
Egypt, Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1696

Since the March 10, 2023 agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran to resume their diplomatic relations, there have been signs that Egypt may follow the Saudi example and renew its relations with Iran. According to reports, talks are currently underway between the two countries, with Iraqi mediation, similar to the six rounds of Iraqi-brokered talks held by Saudi Arabia and Iran before the signing of the agreement between them.[1] Egypt has also announced it will allow Iranian tourists to visit the country under certain conditions.[2]

Iran severed its diplomatic relations with Egypt in 1980, on the orders of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of Iran's Islamic Revolution regime, in protest of Egypt's peace agreement with Israel and its sheltering of the deposed Iranian Shah. Iran even named a central boulevard in Tehran after Khalid Al-Islambouli, the assassin of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, an act that became emblematic of the deep-seated hostility between the two countries. Eleven years later, after the death of Khomeini and the appointment of the pragmatic Rafsanjani as president of Iran, diplomatic relations were restored at the level of charge d'affaires, but they have yet to be fully renewed.[3]

Several Egyptian concerns and apprehensions impede the full restoration of relations. Despite the considerable geographic distance between the two countries, Egypt regards Iran as a security threat and fears the attempts of this country and its allies, such as Hizbullah, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, to carry out terror attacks in its territory and undermine its security.[4] Egypt also fears Iranian interference in its internal affairs, whether through support of Islamic organizations hostile to the regime, such the Muslim Brotherhood (MB),[5] which is designated as a terror organization in Egypt, or through attempts to spread Shi'ite Islam in Egypt, as Iran is doing in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

Furthermore, Egypt, which has received extensive political and economic support from Saudi Arabia,[6] saw itself until recently as part of the anti-Iranian Sunni camp, led by Saudi Arabia, and linked rapprochement with Iran to a shift in the latter's policies towards the Gulf states. Egyptian officials stressed on multiple occasions that the security of the Gulf is part of Egypt's national security.[7] Iran's support of the Houthis in Yemen is also regarded by Egypt as a threat to its allies Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and to Egypt itself. This country is worried that Iran, by means of the Houthis, will threaten shipping in the Bab Al-Mandeb strait in the south of the Red Sea and thus also in the Suez Canal, which is vital to the Egyptian economy. This issue has reportedly been discussed in the security talks between Egypt and Iran.[8] Another factor that may impede rapprochement between the two countries is Israel's objection to such a move.

Today, however, a combination of recent geostrategic changes in the region and the world have motivated a shift in Egypt's position. These changes include the China-brokered agreement between Saudi-Arabia and Iran, the economic crisis in Egypt, which has deepened due to the war in Ukraine, and the decline of America's and Europe's involvement in the region versus the increasing power and involvement of China and Russia.[9]

That said, it should be noted that the driving force behind the thaw in the relations seems to be Iran, rather than Egypt. Iranian officials have been making many positive statements about Egypt lately. For example, Foreign Minister Amir Abdollahian called Egypt a "sister" country and expressed hope that relations with it would be restored. The Egyptian authorities, on the other hand, have refrained from expressing optimism about the current talks with Iran, and the Egyptian foreign minister even denied that these talks were taking place. Furthermore, the response of the Egyptian president and foreign ministry to the agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia was reserved, describing it as an important development but at the same time expressing hope for a change in Iran's policy in the region.[10]

Moreover, articles welcoming the Saudi-Iranian agreement and hoping for a similar agreement between Egypt and Iran did not appear in Egypt's state press, but only in the non-state papers. These articles argued that such an agreement would serve the interests of both countries and improve the economic situation in Egypt.

This report reviews Egypt's position on the normalization agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the signs of a possible rapprochement between Egypt and Iran, and statements and articles in the Egyptian press arguing for and against such rapprochement.

Egypt Welcomes Renewal Of Saudi-Iran Relations But Expects Change In Iran's Regional Policy

Upon the signing of the Saudi-Iran agreement on March 10, 2023, Egypt welcomed the agreement, calling it an important development, and expressed hope that it would lead to cooperation between the two countries. However, it also clarified that it expects the agreement to result in the cessation of Iran's interference in the affairs of regional countries, as Saudi Arabia has in fact demanded. A statement issued by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry said that "Egypt is following the agreement closely… and hopes it will help reduce tension in the region, strengthen stability, preserve Arab security and meet the aspirations of the peoples of the region in achieving prosperity, development and stability."[11] The following day, Egypt's Presidential Spokesperson Ahmad Fahmi said that the Saudi-Iran agreement "will have a positive impact on Iran's policy in the region and the world, and will be a fitting opportunity for it to show that it is shifting to a policy that considers the justified concerns of the region's countries." This, he added, "will increase the chances of tightening the positive ties between [Iran and Egypt]… in a manner that will meet the hopes of the peoples of the region for prosperity and progress."[12]

Signs Of Egypt-Iran Rapprochement: Egypt Reopens To Iranian Tourists

The Iranians, for their part, signaled a desire to draw closer to Egypt. On March 13, 2023, several days after the signing of the Saudi-Iran agreement, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani said in a press conference that "Egypt is an important country in the region" and added: "Iran and Egypt respect one another, and the region needs the positive ability and synergy between Iran and Egypt."[13]

Indeed, following the signing of the Saudi-Iran agreement, a number of measures were reported indicating a warming of relations between Egypt and Iran. For example, in late March Egypt's Ministry of Tourism announced steps to ease the entry of foreign tourists into the country, including Iranian tourists, who have been barred from Egypt for years (except in 2013, during the brief presidency of MB member Muhammad Morsi).[14] The Ministry announced that Iranian tour groups will be allowed to enter via Sinai after obtaining prior permission.[15]

Iraq Mediating Between Egypt And Iran

Moreover, as stated, Egypt and Iran have reportedly been holding talks in recent weeks, with Iraqi mediation, on the possibility of restoring the diplomatic relations between them. According to an April 2 report in the London-based daily Al-Arabi Al-Jadid, in late March the two countries discussed Red Sea security, as part of the general Arab rapprochement with Iran.[16] The Iraqi media reported that Iraq and Oman were brokering contacts between Egypt and Iran with an eye to renewing the relations between them, and that the sides were progressing slowly and carefully while following the developments in the region.[17] Iraqi and Egyptian sources told Al-Arabi Al-Jadid that, in March and April, meetings had taken place between low-level Egyptian and Iranian diplomats and security officers in Baghdad, with the aim of improving the relations and paving the way to officially renewing them. The National, an Emirati English-language daily, reported on May 8 that the talks in Baghdad "touched on reducing tension in places where Iran wields significant influence, such as Yemen, Lebanon and Syria," and that "the two sides are also exploring the possibility of a meeting between Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi and Iranian leader Ebrahim Raisi."[18] Furthermore, on May 21-22, 2023, Omani Sultan Haitham Bin Tariq visited Egypt, and the sides reportedly discussed "the normalization of relations between Cairo and Tehran."[19]

It should be noted that, according to some reports, contacts between Egypt and Iran started already in 2021, concurrently with the Iraqi-mediated contacts between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but focused on security and intelligence matters.[20] In July 2022 there were reports of security talks in Oman between a high-ranking Egyptian delegation and Iranian officials,[21] and in November 2022 Iranian Vice President Ali Salajka reportedly met with Egyptian officials on the margins of the international climate-change conference in Egypt.[22]

As mentioned, Iran is the more eager of the two countries to improve the relations. Just before the signing of the agreement with Saudi Arabia, Iran expressed its desire to improve its relations with other Arab countries, including with Egypt. Iranian Foreign Minister Amir Abdollahian said at a joint press conference with his Iraqi counterpart Fuad Hussein in late February 2023 that Tehran was acting to draw closer to Saudi Arabia and Egypt.[23] Prior to this, he stressed Iran's willingness to warm the relations with Egypt in a conversation with Egyptian President Al-Sisi on the margins of the Baghdad II Conference for Cooperation and Partnership, held in Jordan in December 2022.[24] After the signing of the Saudi-Iran agreement, and after the contacts between Iran and Egypt came to light, Iranian officials continued to praise Egypt, and, as stated above, Abdollahian called Egypt a "sister" country and expressed hope for further positive and mutual developments in the relations. A member of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee in Iran's Majlis, Fada-Hossein Maleki, even assessed that an agreement between the two countries was imminent.[25] Conversely, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri said that the reports about Egyptian-Iranian contacts were baseless.[26]

Egyptian Journalists Call For Rapprochement With Iran

The non-state Egyptian press published several articles welcoming the agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran and hoping that Egypt would follow Saudi Arabia's example.

Rapprochement with Iran Will Improve The Citizens' Lives In Both Countries

Muhammad Al-Sayyed Saleh, the former editor of the Al-Masri Al-Yawm daily, wrote in his column in this paper: "Just hours after Riyadh and Tehran announced their agreement to resume diplomatic relations, the presidency of the [Egyptian] republic issued an official statement welcoming this inclination to 'remove points of tension in the regional relations.' Many who follow this issue wondered whether Egypt [intends to] take a similar active step towards Iran… I hope the issue of the relations with Tehran will be reexamined and that [the countries] will launch serious and comprehensive negotiations, in which our supreme interests – political, economic and security-related – will determine the final position of the decision-makers…"[27]

'Imad Al-Din Hussein, editor of the Egyptian daily Al-Shurouq, argued that the agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran would benefit the peoples of the region and could lead to the resumption of relations between Iran and Egypt as well. He wrote: "The assessment below, regarding who benefits the most from this rapprochement [between Saudi Arabia and Iran], is based on the assumption that the two countries will stop interfering in each-other's affairs, and especially that Iran will stop intervening in areas of tension like Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and the Gulf. If the intensions are sincere and the forces who are harmed [by the agreement] do not try to sabotage it, the first to benefit from it will be the peoples of the region, and [especially] the people of the two countries. The rapprochement means that both countries can devote themselves to development and to improving the lives of their citizens, instead of increasing their expenditure on arms, which swallows up a large portion of their budgets…

"This reconciliation may accelerate the resumption of relations between Egypt and Iran, which were severed after the [Iranian] revolution of 1979, especially since one of the reasons for avoiding this was Egypt's opposition to Iran's interference in the affairs of the Gulf states…"[28]

Rapprochement With Iran Can Improve Our Economic Situation

Mahmoud Zaher, a columnist for the daily Al-Wafd, called to establish "judicious relations" with Iran in order to improve Egypt's economic situation, stressing that neither friendship nor enmity have to persist forever. He wrote: "We [in Egypt] see that all the Gulf states, without exception, have diplomatic representations in Iran, and vice versa, and some of them maintain economic and trade relations with it worth billions of dollars annually. Hence, it is illogical on our part to avoid establishing diplomatic relations with Iran out of concern about the possible impact of this on the Gulf states, when they themselves do maintain relations with Iran, which were never severed and which in fact grow from day to day.

"It's time for Egypt to adopt a new approach, based on the principle that the future is rooted in the past but is certainly not predetermined it. Egypt also needs a quick remedy for the crushing economic crisis [from which it suffers]. There is a well-known saying that 'there are neither old friends nor historic enemies.'[39] So nothing prevents us from [maintaining] judicious ties [with Iran].

"Finally, there is a legitimate and objective question regarding the [problem of] Shi'ization and the consistent warnings made in this context. [But] we can easily turn the question on its head and ask… why wouldn't rapprochement between Egypt and Iran promote the Sunnization of the Iranians and be an opportunity for the spread of Sunni [Islam] in the Persian country?!..."[30]

Egyptian Politicians Opposed To Rapprochement With Iran: What Suits Saudi Arabia Does Not Necessarily Suit Egypt

Alongside the articles advocating rapprochement with Iran, there were also some voices that opposed this. For example, 'Abd Al-Mun'im Sa'id, an Egyptian senator and journalist, noted on the news channel Al-Hadath Al-Yawm that Egypt's reasons for severing its relations with Iran were different from Saudi Arabia's: Egypt cut its relations with Iran because the latter was hosting Egyptian terrorists who had joined Al-Qaeda after the war in Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, cut its relations with Iran only in 2016, after Iranians tried to storm its embassy in Tehran. Moreover, he added, while the Gulf states have trade and religious-sectarian relations with Iran, Egypt does not have many reasons to hold ties with Iran.[31]

Former foreign minister Muhammad Al-'Orabi said that Egypt was concerned about Iran's intervention and expansion in the region, and therefore that it should set terms for rapprochement, for example that Iran "not interfere in Egypt's internal affairs or support the extremist organizations in Egypt, stop its regional expansion, stop playing a negative role in Arab capitals and refrain from undermining the security of the Gulf states and of its other neighbors, directly or indirectly." He refused to draw a connection between Saudi Arabia's normalization with Iran and the case of Egypt, stressing that Egypt takes its own sovereign decisions.[32]


* B. Chernitsky is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[1] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), May 5, 2023.

[2], March 27, 2023.

[3] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 37 - Developments in Egyptian-Iranian Relations, Part I: An Apprehensive Rapprochement – August 14, 2000; Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 38 - Developments in Egyptian-Iranian Relations, Part II: Egyptian Concerns and Ambitions - August 15, 2000; Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 711 - Will Egypt Respond to Iranian Efforts to Renew Diplomatic Relations? – July 21, 2011.

[4] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 512 - Egypt: The Hizbullah Cell in Egypt – A Joint Conspiracy by Iran, Syria, Qatar, Hizbullah, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood – May 3, 2009; Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 719 - Hamas's Gaza – Four Years Later; Chapter 7: Hamas's Relations with Egypt – July 29, 2011; Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 936 - To Hamas's Chagrin, Egypt Increases Anti-Tunnel Activity On Gaza Border – February 20, 2013; Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1003 - Hamas Embroiled In Internal Egyptian Struggles – July 31, 2013.

[5] According to a report posted November 2019 on the Intercept website, MB and Iranian representatives held a secret meeting in 2014 to promote activity against Saudi Arabia. Ibrahim Al-Mounir, who was the MB's acting general guide at the time, confirmed that the meeting had taken place but denied the claim regarding its content (, November 18, 2019;, November 18, 2019).

[6] The Gulf states transferred tens of billions of dollars to Egypt in 2013 and 2014, following President 'Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi's rise to power and the deposing of the MB regime. Al-Sisi has in fact said that, had it not been for that aid, Egypt would not have existed today. The aid was apparently meant to keep Egypt stable, so that it, in turn, would protect the Gulf's security against regional threats like Iran and like the spread of the MB (Al-Khalij, UAE, April 27, 2022).

[7] Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri said this in 2016, and Egyptian officials have repeated this message over the years (middle-east-online, April 1, 2023).

[8] See e.g., Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), July 12, 2021. This may have been Egypt's motivation for joining the Combined Task Force (CTF) 153, formed in April 2022 by the U.S. Central Command to secure the Red Sea, Bab Al-Mandeb and the Gulf of Aden. In December 2022 Egypt in fact assumed command of this task force (Al-Arab, London, January 15, 2023;, December 12, 2022).

[9] An Egyptian official made statements to this effect on April 2, 2023 to the London-based daily Al-Arabi Al-Jadid. Another indication of Egypt's softening towards Iran is its decision to withdraw from the U.S. initiative to establish a " Middle East Strategic Alliance," known as "the Arab NATO," aimed at curbing Iran's growing influence in the region. Egypt apparently withdrew from the initiative in 2019 in order to avoid escalating the tension vis-à-vis Iran. See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 8115 – Articles In Egyptian Press Oppose U.S. Attack On Iran; 'Al-Ahram' Editorial Board Member: The Iranian Regime Is Pragmatic, June 12, 2019.

[10], May 16, 2023.

[11], March 10, 2023.

[12] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), March 11, 2023.

[13], March 13, 2023; Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 14, 2023.

[14], March 11, 2023,, March 29, 2023.

[15], March 27, 2023.

[16] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), April 2, 2023.

[17], April 12, 2023.

[18], May 8, 2023; Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), May 5, 2023.

[19] According to Egyptian sources, Egypt is in fact willing to exchange ambassadors with Iran (Al-Arabi Al-Jadid, London, May 23, 2023). Imad Jad, an advisor at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said that Egypt is counting on Oman to mediate between the countries (Al-Arab, London, May 22, 2023).

[20], April 17, 2021; Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), April 26, 2023.

[21] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), July 12, 2021, August 12, 2021, July 6, 2022.

[22] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), April 2, 2023.

[23], February 22, 2023.

[24] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), January 5, 2023.

[25], Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), May 14, 2023.

[26], May 16, 2023.

[27] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), April 18, 2023.

[28] Al-Shurouq (Egypt), March 12, 2023.

[29] This is a paraphrase of a comment made by British statesman Lord Palmerstone in 1848 in the House of Commons: " We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow."

[30] Al-Wafd (Egypt), April 18, 2023.

[31] Al-Shurouq (Egypt), March 11, 2023. For more on Egypt's and Saudi Arabia's different attitude to Iran, see

Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1202 - Egypt-Saudi Arabia Relations: Substantial Rifts Despite Shared Basic Interests – November 11, 2015.

[32] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), March 14, 2023.

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