By Emily Boulter
In February 2011, just two days after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt permitted two Iranian naval vessels to pass through the Suez Canal. It was the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that an Iranian naval ship had passed through the Canal, and was greeted by Israel, and other states in the region as a provocative manoeuvre. Two months later, Iran appointed Ali Akbar Sibouyeh, as its first ambassador to Egypt in thirty years. Both gestures symbolized a new course for Egyptian relations in the Middle East and prompted speculation over the nature of renewed ties between Cairo and Tehran.
Last August during the Non-Aligned Movement summit, President Morsi became the first Egyptian leader to visit the Islamic Republic in over thirty years. Iranian officials were quick to praise this positive step in bilateral relations. Egypt’s Al-Ahram newspaper reported that Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said, “Egypt is the cornerstone of the region and has a special stature in the Arab and Muslim countries…and we want relations of friendship and brotherhood with it”. However, during the visit Morsi did not meet the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei and at the summit, Morsi was eager to condemn the actions of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a speech. Syria has proven to be a major stumbling block, as Egyptians are firmly behind the rebels, while Iran’s ambassador to Damascus has said his country will defend Assad to the end. A spokesperson for the Egyptian president told Iran’s foreign minister that the president could not “ignore public sentiment in Egypt, which is against the Syrian regime”. Yet, Morsi submitted an idea in September 2012 that Iran becomes a member of an “Islamic Quartet”, along with Saudi Arabia and Turkey, in order to work for a non-military solution to the crisis in Syria. Salehi said in response that: “The common ground between us is more than our differences.”
In February 2013, amid the backdrop of regional uncertainty, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made a historic visit to Cairo to attend the three-day Organization of Islamic Cooperation summit, and was warmly greeted by President Morsi and taken to meet the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayyeb, who was frank in his criticism of the “spread of Shiism in Sunni lands”, while Iran’s president was effusive with praise for his Egyptian hosts: “the Egyptian people have their place in the heart of the Iranian people”. He spoke of forming a strategic alliance and giving Egypt an all-important loan to alleviate its flagging economy. Also, Egyptians will no longer require visas to travel to Iran. There has been no response to these offers, and according to Al-Ahram columnist, Fahmy Howeidi, he believes Ahmadinejad’s visit is “merely cosmetic”. The Iranian leader also had to endure the embarrassment of not one but two attempted assaults during the visit.
Traditionally among Sunni countries, Egypt has always been close to Iran. Former President Anwar Sadat allowed the former Shah to remain there until his death in July 1980, where he was given a state funeral. Yet relations were severed, due to Egypt’s peace agreement with Israel at Camp David and throughout the 1980s, as a result of Egypt’s decision to support Iraq in its war with Iran. Egypt supplied Iraq with spare parts and ammunition for its Soviet-designed weapons system. In 2009, Egypt accused the Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah of planning attacks inside Egypt, which led to the arrest of 49 men. After the removal of Mubarak, the United States, along with other Middle East states, cautiously waited to see how a Muslim Brotherhood government would proceed in its regional dealings. Iran’s Supreme Leader has great affection for Egypt. According to scholar Mehdi Khalaji, Khamenei invites Egyptian Quraan reciters to Iran every Ramadan. He has also translated the works of the Muslim Brotherhood’s intellectual mentor Sayyid Qutb into Farsi. In early 2011, on BBC Persian, Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Kamal al-Halbawi thanked the Supreme Leader for his support during Egypt’s revolution, although al-Halbawi emphasized that it was not an “Islamic revolution”.
What remains a mystery is Morsi’s decision to initiate a rapprochement with Iran given the country’s poor reputation in much of the Middle East. They have little in common, except for the fact that both Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood are supporters of Hamas in Gaza; although last November Morsi was able to use his connections with Hamas to finalize a truce with Israel. Meanwhile, plenty of Egyptians regard Iran with suspicion. On January 10, while Foreign Minister Salehi was meeting his counterpart Mohamed Kamel Amr, a conference was held entitled “Support for the Ahwaz People” against what its organizers called “the Persian occupation of the Ahwaz Arab land.” The event, while not explicitly endorsed by the government, was attended by Morsi’s assistant for community outreach, Emad Abdel Ghafour, who called the conference a “launching pad for supporting the cause of the Arab people in every neighboring Arab country against the Persian occupation.” It is unlikely the Iranians are not aware of the Egyptians lackluster interest to pursue full diplomatic relations and discuss economic cooperation; although the Iranians, through their media, are eagerly reporting every development. For instance, the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA) quoted Iran’s Oil Minister Rostam Ghasemi say on September 10 that negotiations were underway to sell crude oil to Egypt. The next day, Egypt’s own oil minister Osama Kamal said there was no truth to the reports.
The possibility of military and intelligence cooperation between the Islamic Republic and Cairo was lent some weight in mid-January, when various news sources, including the UK’s Times reported that the commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Qods division, Qassem Suleimani, visited Cairo in late December to talk with officials such as Morsi’s foreign affairs advisor Issam al-Haddad about creating an intelligence and security service independent of the military. Yet government officials and al-Haddad quickly denied the claim. Yet Al-Masry Al-Youm reported that Egypt’s Interior Minister Ahmed Gamal El Din was replaced in a cabinet reshuffle due to his opposition to these talks. On the Iranian side, the Deputy Commander of the Revolutionary Guard, Brigadier General Hossein Salami also denied talks took place with Egyptian officials. It is not difficult to understand the reasons for their denial, given that Egypt’s internal situation remains precarious. There are some suggestions that Iran might be prepared to endure half measures of friendship from Cairo, due to its interest to secure a modicum of support from a leading Sunni state. Because without Syria, Iran will be left with few doors open. On the other hand, Egypt is well aware that the world is watching closely, and by cultivating a relationship with Iran, it could work to ensure the west and Gulf states will be forthcoming with economic support, in return for Egypt’s cooperation.
Among members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, there has been a mixed reaction to this loose alliance. As an act of reassurance, former Egyptian foreign minister, and current Secretary General of the Arab League, Nabil Al-Arabi said: “Relations with Iran won’t be at the expense of Egypt’s relations with the Arab Gulf, or [at the] expense of [Gulf states’] security and stability.” While Saudi Arabia has been hesitant to embrace the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi’s decision to choose Saudi Arabia as his first oversees trip after becoming president, illustrated his determination to maintain friendly relations. Morsi has succeeded in the release of USD 1.5 billion of nearly USD 4 billion of aid and soft loans promised by Saudi Arabia. In July 2011, al-Ahram reported Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said Egypt is “the captain of the Arab world and we care about its stability”. Qatar has also agreed to support Egypt’s currency by giving it $2.5 bn in loans and grants. However according to the Guardian newspaper, Dubai’s police chief Dahi Khalfan Tamim believes that both Iran and Egypt pose a threat: “They both want to export the revolution”. Even though, Morsi announced in his inauguration speech that “we do not interfere in the affairs of other people or nations”, in January, UAE officials arrested at least eleven Egyptians with alleged links to the Muslim Brotherhood. While there is no consensus among GCC members regarding Egypt, there is unanimous concern over the threat Iran poses. The Islamic Republic will try to prove that the Sunni-Shiite divide can be crossed, but its ill-conceived support for Syria and the general suspicion, with which most Egyptians view Iran, along with the loss of both GCC and western support, will inhibit the development of a genuine alliance.
Emily Boulter, Non-Resident Associate, INEGMA
About the author: INEGMA
INEGMA is a Free Zone Limited Liability Company based in Dubai Media City, in the United Arab Emirates. Established in 2001, INEGMA was set up to provide media organizations, think tanks, non-governmental organizations, militaries and governments of the Middle East, and international private companies with various services related to military and strategic affairs.