The fall of Hosni Mubarak was good news for the government of Iran, for a number of reasons. Most important is the expected change in Egypt’s diplomatic posture toward the Islamic Republic. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei can look forward to bilateral relations being upgraded to embassy level.
Despite the expected rapprochement, there are a number of areas where post-revolution Egypt will compete with Iran, the most notable being Hamas.
Compared to the situation under Mubarak, the new Egyptian government is very likely to improve its relations with the Hamas government in Gaza. This has been made amply clear by a number of Egyptian officials including Mohammad ElBaradei, who is expected to be a candidate in the upcoming presidential elections.
The changes in Egypt’s policy toward Hamas are likely to include major alterations to the enforcement of what remains of the siege of Gaza. The new Egyptian government is also likely to improve its diplomatic relations with Hamas. This could include state visits by senior Hamas officials to Cairo — to date, they have been admitted to Egypt only to negotiate with the PLO. And, although for now the possibility seems small, we cannot rule out the prospect of the establishment of a Hamas office in the Egyptian capital.
Initially, Khamenei’s government is likely to welcome such a move as it would indicate that Hamas is breaking out of its isolation, against Israel’s wishes. However in the long run, an Egyptian rapprochement with Hamas is unlikely to be in Iran’s interest.
In fact, when it comes to influence over Hamas, Iran’s leaders would be right to be concerned that Egypt could overtake the Islamic Republic. Egyptian aspirations aside, there are several factors that could pull Hamas toward Egypt and away from Iran.
First and foremost is geographical proximity. Unlike Iran, Egypt and Gaza share a border.
We also have to consider the position of Egypt versus the position of Iran in the international community. Egypt has much better relations with the European Union and the United States than Iran does.
There is also Tehran’s more isolated position regionally, due to the escalation in the cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. This is a very polarizing conflict for the region. More and more countries are faced with the choice of backing one contestant or the other. Many are siding with the Saudis. This includes Iran’s own ally Syria, which backed the dispatch of Saudi forces to Bahrain, much against Iran’s interests.
The Egyptians, who recently allowed two Iranian warships to pass through the Suez Canal, are backing the Saudis in this cold war as well. This was made very clear by Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Al Arabi, who in a recent interview supported the deployment of Saudi forces to Bahrain. By way of justification, he was quoted as saying, “The stability and identity of Arab countries of the [Persian] Gulf is a red line which Egypt will not cross.”
Hamas’s only other ally in the region is Syria. Bashar al-Assad is in trouble at home, and he had already decided not to take Iran’s part in the cold war against the Saudis. Such developments are likely to make it more expedient for Hamas to choose the Saudi side, which would consequently encourage it to move closer to Egypt.
The new Egyptian government is likely to be very protective of its dealings with Hamas. While it will have improved relations with Tehran, in all likelihood, it will not want to allow the Iranian government to take away its share of influence over the Palestinian situation.
When it comes to worries about the expected rapprochement between Hamas and Egypt, Iran will not be alone. The Israeli government will also be concerned.
Hamas’s relations with Iran made it easy for Jerusalem to isolate the organization abroad, due to Iran’s own isolation in the international community. The organization’s links with Iran also angered the rival Saudis, much to Israel’s advantage.
But being close to Egypt will change the rules of the game. When it comes to the perception of Egypt in the international community and in the Middle East, it is in a different league from Iran, thus making it more difficult for Israel to isolate Hamas. And if Egypt manages to negotiate a power-sharing agreement between the PLO and Hamas, then all the worst for both Israel and Iran, which vehemently opposes the PLO.
The governments of Iran and Israel are divided over many matters. However, the ongoing changes in the Middle East are providing them with unwanted areas of common concern.
This article appeared at PBS and is reprinted with the author’s permission.