July 21, 2011 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 711

Will Egypt Respond to Iranian Efforts to Renew Diplomatic Relations?

July 21, 2011 | By A. Savyon and L. Azuri*
Iran, Egypt | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 711

Egyptian Foreign Minister Dr. Nabil Al-'Arabi has recently expressed his country's willingness to turn over a new leaf in its relations with Iran, as part of its new post-revolution foreign policy, marked by a desire to maintain good relations with all countries and organizations worldwide and to improve Egypt's regional status. Ahmadinejad's government was quick to praise Egypt for its initiative, and has depicted post-Mubarak Egypt in the Iranian press as eager to renew ties with Iran.[1]

Iran has been making efforts to advance the initiative and give the impression that it is bearing fruit. On April 23, Iranian Foreign Minister 'Ali Akbar Salehi said that Tehran had announced its decision to renew relations with Egypt, and it was now waiting for the Egyptians to take a similar decision. Other Iranian spokesmen stressed the need to expedite the improvement of economic and trade relations with Egypt. The interest of Ahmadenijad's government in publicizing the renewal of Egypt-Iran relations presumably lies in the fact that Iran sees this as leverage in its struggle with the Sunni camp, headed by Saudi Arabia. In addition, the initiative will be a sore blow to Israel, the U.S., and the West – to which Mubarak's Egypt had been an outspoken ally – and at the same, it will constitute a significant achievement for the resistance camp and for Iran's Islamic Revolution. It should be noted that in 2008, Ahmadinejad initiated a similar campaign to advance relations with Cairo, which met with intense criticism from his opponents at home and which ultimately did not bear fruit.[2]

The Iranian enthusiasm notwithstanding, the Egyptian government has not rushed to implement Al-'Arabi's statement about stepping up relations with Iran. Though Iran asked that the contacts towards renewing the relations be held at the level of foreign ministers, as of today, only its U.N. ambassador, Mohammad Khazaei, has been received in Cairo for discussions of the initiative. Various elements in Egypt expressed a fear that renewing relations with Iran might isolate Egypt from the other Arab countries; undermine its leading position in the region; compromise its sovereignty, as a result of Iranian interference; lead to "Shi'itization" and thus to sectarian schism; and compromise Egypt's interests in the Gulf. With the last concern in mind, Egyptian officials hurried to assure the Gulf states that Cairo had no intention of forming a strategic alliance with Tehran.

The initiative also met with criticism from Ahmadinejad's critics in Iran, who cautioned against rushing into an alliance with Egypt, on the grounds that, even after Mubarak's ouster, no fundamental change had occurred which justified the renewal of relations.

This document will provide an overview of the recent initiative for rapprochement between Egypt and Iran.

Contacts with an Eye to Renewing Diplomatic Relations

In late March, 2011, Egyptian Foreign Minister Dr. Nabil Al-'Arabi announced his county's intent to turn over a new leaf in its relations with other countries, including Iran, pointing to the historical ties between the two countries and explaining that Iran was not Egypt's enemy.[3] Mojtaba Amani, director of Iran's interest office in Cairo, reported that Iran's Foreign Ministry and Majlis welcomed Al-'Arabi's statements and that a dialogue between the two countries had been initiated with an aim to fully renewing the relations.

Tehran requested that the rapprochement take place publicly and at the level of foreign ministers. To this end, on April 4, 2011, Amani met with Al-'Arabi and gave him a letter from Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi in which the latter welcomed the rapprochement initiative. It was also reported that, in the letter, Salehi asked to meet with Al-'Arabi in Cairo or Tehran.[4] Amani said that Iran wished for Egypt to be strong and to regain the regional status it deserved.[5] Notwithstanding Tehran's request that the contacts be held at the level of foreign ministers, it dispatched its U.N. ambassador, Mohammad Khazaei, to Cairo on April 12, 2011 to meet with Egyptian senior officials over the initiative.[6] On April 21, the Iranian news agency Fars reported that Iran and Egypt had signed an agreement for the first time since the ouster of Mubarak; the agreement addressed tourist exchanges between the two countries.[7]

On April 19, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said that reports in the Iranian media following Khazaei's visit to the effect that an Iranian ambassador to Cairo was to be appointed had been hasty and based on conjecture, and that Tehran would be prepared to take serious measures as soon as the foundations had been laid for expanding relations between Iran and Egypt. He added that expanding these relations was in the interest of both countries.[8] Mojtaba Amani denied that the warming relations between Iran and Egypt had stalled or cooled and said that the process necessitated more time. He added that the two countries had yet to reach an agreement over upgrading their levels of diplomatic representation.[9] A few days later, Iranian Foreign Minister 'Ali Akbar Salehi called on Cairo to take a courageous step in warming relations with Egypt. He said that Tehran had announced its decision to renew relations with Egypt, and it was now waiting for the Egyptians to take a similar decision.[10]

In Tehran, Iranian Majlis National Security Committee Chairman Alaeddin Boroujerdi expressed support for the rapprochement, while calling to curb the harmful influence the U.S. and Israel might exert on it. Hossein Ebrahimi, deputy-chairman of the Iranian Majlis National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, said that Egypt's opposition to Israel and its adoption of the model provided by Iran's Islamic Revolution provided Iran and Egypt with common ground, and called for an exchange of ambassadors between the two countries. A source at Iran's interest office in Cairo said that the reports that Egypt had set conditions for rapprochement were mistaken.[11]

The website Iran Diplomacy expounded on Tehran's economic interest in renewing relations with Cairo, as well as stressing Iran's ability to influence Egypt's domestic politics. The website stated that the ongoing and extensive discussion over the Iran-Egypt Development Bank was a manifestation of Iran's desire to deepen its economic ties with Egypt and to enjoy a greater share in the market of this country, with its population of 80 million. It should be noted that Iran's U.N. ambassador, Mohammed Khazaei, served as Iran's deputy minister of finance and is a member of the bank's directorate.[12]

The website estimated that, though the U.S. and Israel currently had considerable economic and security influence in Egypt, if Tehran increased its own influence there, it would quite rapidly manage to compel Egypt's military regime to concede to the demands of Egypt's Islamist stream, which the website said had widespread public support. It also said it that the expected entry of the Muslim Brotherhood into Egypt's government institutions would alter the military and political situation on the Egyptian-Israeli border.[13]

Iran also made the gesture of facilitating the return to Egypt of some 100 Egyptians who had been residing in Iran for the past eight years, most of them members of Egyptian jihadi groups and their family members, who had arrived in Iran after fighting in Afghanistan alongside Al-Qaeda. The initiative was reportedly brokered by Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, with the assistance of Egyptian attorney Muntasar Al-Ziat. It was also reported that Iran is continuing to detain three Egyptians for security reasons.[14]

Criticism in Egypt and Iran: Nothing Has Changed to Justify the Renewal of Relations

Alongside Iran's official support for the rapprochement with Egypt, critics of Ahmadinejad voiced concern and disapproval over the initiative. For example, an article in the Iranian daily Jomhouri-e Eslami, known for its criticism of the Iranian president, claimed that the ouster of Mubarak had not changed anything in Egypt to justify Iran's renewal of relations with it, as the old regime of the military elite was still firmly in place.[15] Likewise, Kazem Jalali, rapporteur of the Majlis National Security Committee, cautioned against rushing into renewing relations with Egypt, calling upon Iran to do so gradually and in response to the unfolding events in the region.[16]

Calls against hurrying the rapprochement were also heard Egypt. A number of concerns were voiced in this regard: that Iran's intent was to turn Egypt into an Iranian satellite and to isolate it from the other Arab countries;[17] that Egypt would undergo "Shi'itization" which would lead to a social rift;[18] that Iran would undermine Egypt's sovereignty and interfere in its domestic affairs; and that Egypt's interests in the Gulf would be compromised.[19] In a recent article, the former editor of the Egyptian government daily Roz Al-Yousef, 'Abdallah Kamal, who was an associate of Mubarak and was recently replaced in his post at the newspaper, defended Egypt's foreign policy under former foreign minister Ahmad Abu Al-Gheit, who had opposed rapprochement with Iran. Kamal claimed that the new policy contradicted the goals of the revolution, as Iran itself silenced protestors and suppressed demonstrations. He also pointed out that Iran attacked Egypt's Arab allies, such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.[20] A similar position was expressed by journalist Osama 'Agag, who held several senior posts in the Egyptian government press under the Mubarak regime. He opposed the rapprochement on the grounds that Iran did not allow other countries to play a leading role in the region and excluded them from handling regional crises.[21]

Cairo: We Have No Intention of Forging a Strategic Alliance with Iran

The warming of relations between Iran and Egypt raised concerns among the Gulf states, in light of their own tense relations with Tehran, prompting Egyptian Foreign Minister Al-'Arabi to declare that Cairo considered the stability and Arabness of the Gulf a red line not to be crossed.[22] Another source at the Egyptian foreign ministry clarified that Egypt's goal in rapprochement was to establish "basic normalized relations with Tehran, no more and no less... which is nothing unusual, considering the fact that the Gulf states themselves have embassies in Tehran." He said that Egypt wished to raise the level of representation from interest offices to embassies, but that it had no intention of forging a strategic alliance with Iran. The source added that Egypt would not sway from its commitment to the united Arab stance, which calls for proper relations between the countries of the region while steering clear of mutual intervention.[23]

The Egyptian government daily Al-Ahram elucidated Egypt's interest in renewing relations with Iran while rejecting the criticism: "The Foreign Minister's... recent statements to the effect that [post-]revolution Egypt needs to maintain proper relations with all the world countries, including Iran, [mark] the return of rationality to Egyptian diplomacy after years of being dominated by narrow tendencies and views. This diplomacy experienced years of drought, during which Egypt's role in the region and the world diminished, causing others – the useless or incompetent – to try to fill this role, while the Egyptians looked on [in dismay] but could do nothing about it.

"Those formerly responsible for Egypt's diplomatic affairs [under Mubarak] tried to explain that the renewal of relations between Egypt and Iran would mean a capitulation on Egypt's part, and a recognition of Iran's infiltration of the Gulf and of Tehran's [status] as the leading power in the region. However, the fact is that the renewal of relations between the two countries means [nothing more than] normalizing relations, as [Foreign] Minister Nabil Al-'Arabi said, which is to say, maintaining normal relations without either side having supremacy over the other.

"Likewise, these relations do not mean keeping silent over Iranian policies that are unacceptable to Egypt or that negatively influence [Egypt's] sister countries. Any role that Egypt is to play in the region and the world will depend on the number of cards it holds. One of these cards is its relations to the countries of the world, such that it can have a positive influence on these countries. Egypt is unlikely to serve as a mediator, or to carry out any other role, unless it has relations with all [relevant] sides and can persuade one side or another on a given position.

"Egypt, by its very nature, has cards that enable it to serve a prominent regional and international role. But the great revolution has given it additional important cards, chiefly that it is [now] a democratic country which honors the rights of its citizens and is a source of inspiration for other countries whose peoples hope to effect change in a civilized and progressive manner, through an alliance between the military and the people that will benefit the country. If Egypt's role in the international arena has regressed for many years, the revolution and the changes it has effected guarantee that Egypt's former role will be restored as soon as possible, and even strengthened."[24]

*L. Azuri is a research fellow at MEMRI; A. Savyon is Director of the Iranian Media Project at MEMRI


[1] For example, see Fars TV (Iran), April 8, 2011. On April 11, 2011, Press TV, the English-language website of Iran's broadcasting authority, purportedly cited an interview in the German daily Der Spiegel with the chief of the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces, Field Marshal Muhammad Hussein Tantawi, in which he expressed support for Al-'Arabi's statements and called for the strengthening of ties with Iran. Both Al-'Arabi, on April 7, and Der Spiegel, on April 8, denied that such an interview had taken place. According to The Egyptian Gazette, the source of the false report was the Kuwaiti daily Al-Anba. The Egyptian Gazette (Egypt), April 7, 2011.

[2] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No.2074, "Iranian Film Calling Sadat Traitor Strains Egypt-Iran Relations," October 7, 2008, Iranian Film Calling Sadat Traitor Strains Egypt-Iran Relations; MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No.426, "Iran's Attempts to Renew Relations with Egypt," March 12, 2008, Iran's Attempts to Renew Relations with Egypt; MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No.364, "Dispute in Iran over Renewing Relations with Egypt," June 15, 2007, Dispute in Iran over Renewing Relations with Egypt; MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No.38, "Developments in Egyptian-Iranian Relations, Part II: Egyptian Concerns and Ambitions," August 15, 2000, Developments in Egyptian-Iranian Relations, Part II: Egyptian Concerns and Ambitions; MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No.37, "Developments in Egyptian-Iranian Relations, Part I: An Apprehensive Rapprochement," August 14, 2000, Developments in Egyptian-Iranian Relations, Part I: An Apprehensive Rapprochment.

[3] Al-Ahram (Egypt), March 29, 2011; Roz Al-Yousef (Egypt), March 30, 2011.

[4] Fars (Iran), April 5, 2011; Al-Dustour (Egypt), April 4, 2011.

[5] Al-Ahram (Egypt), April 12, 2011.

[6] Fars (Iran), April 12, 2011.

[7] According to the report, each year, 120,000 Iranian tourists would be allowed to visit Egypt and 60,000 Egyptians allowed to visit Iran. Fars (Iran), April 21, 2011.

[8] Khabar Online (Iran), April 19, 2011.

[9] Al-Ahram (Egypt), April 20, 2011.

[10] IRNA (Iran), April 23, 2011.

[11] Majlis Website (Iran), April 3, 2011; Khabar Online (Iran), April 7, 2011; Fars (Iran), April 5, 2011.

[12] IRNA (Iran), April1 13, 2011.

[13] Iran Diplomacy (Iran), April 14, 2011.

[14] Roz Al-Yousef (Egypt), April 17, 2011.

[15] Jomhouri-e Eslami (Iran), April 7, 2011.

[16] Al-Ahram (Egypt), April 6, 2011.

[17] Al-Misriyoun (Egypt), April 7, 2011.

[18] Al-Misriyoun (Egypt), April 12, 2011.

[19] Al-Yawm Al-Saba' (Egypt), April 7, 2011.

[20] Roz Al-Yousef (Egypt), March 31, 2011.

[21] Al-Akhbar (Egypt), April 9, 2011.

[22] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), April 7, 2011.

[23] Al-Ahram (Egypt), April 5, 2011.

[24] Al-Ahram (Egypt), April 8, 2011.

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