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June 26, 2007

Egypt Turns Down Iranian Overtures

by Jim Lobe

CAIRO - Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad surprised many last month when he announced his country's readiness to reestablish diplomatic relations with Egypt. But last week the Egyptian foreign ministry appeared to dash hopes for rapprochement, describing Iran's regional policies as a "danger to Egypt's national security."

"The spread of Iranian influence in Iraq threatens Arab and Egyptian national security," foreign minister Ahmed Aboul-Gheit said at a June 18 seminar hosted by the Egyptian Rotary Club. "This obliges Cairo to curb its developing relationship with Iran."

The minister went on to accuse "Iranian elements" of supporting last week's takeover of the Gaza Strip by militant Palestinian movement Hamas. "And since Gaza is only a stone's throw from Egypt, this represents a danger to Egypt's national security."

The minister's remarks follow several recent Iranian statements suggesting Tehran's readiness to reactivate diplomatic relations with Egypt, frozen for almost three decades.

"If the Egyptian government was willing, we would open our embassy in Cairo that very day," Ahmadinejad was quoted as saying May 15. "We see Egypt as a part of the Islamic polity, and the two peoples look on one another as brothers."

Four days later, Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki echoed the sentiment. "Iran is keen to normalize relations," he was quoted as saying by Iran's official news agency. "It is only waiting for a reply on the subject from Cairo."

At the time, Aboul-Gheit responded to the overture by calling Ahmadinejad's remarks "positive," vowing to discuss the issue with Mottaki during a planned visit to Cairo. A precise date for that meeting, however, was not announced.

Tehran first broke off relations with Cairo in 1979, in the wake of Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic revolution, after former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David peace agreement with Israel. Cairo further alienated the nascent Islamic Republic later the same year by granting political asylum to freshly deposed shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Bilateral relations remained hostile through much of the 1980s, when Cairo supported Saddam Hussein's Iraq against revolutionary Iran in their long but inconclusive war of attrition.

Since then, the relationship has seen a number of false starts.

In 2003, a brief meeting between Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami in Geneva led to speculation that reconciliation was imminent. At the time, the Egyptian foreign ministry stated that the resumption of diplomatic ties was "an inevitable result of current developments."

But the budding friendship was thwarted when the municipality of Tehran – headed at the time by Ahmadinejad – refused to change the name of Khaled Islambouli Street, one of the capital's major thoroughfares. Islambouli, who is viewed as a hero within conservative Iranian circles, assassinated Sadat in 1981 for signing the Camp David treaty.

The offending place name was reportedly changed to Intifada Street the following year. However, in a concession to outraged conservative sentiment, a large mural honoring the assassin was later erected on the same street.

Last month, Aboul-Gheit again cited the issue as the overriding impediment to diplomatic normalization.

"If Iran got rid of the mural and changed the name of the street … it would solve 90 percent of the problem," he said in a May 17 interview on satellite news channel al-Arabiya. "And it would allow the two countries to start thinking about future relations."

According to local political analysts, however, Cairo is merely using the Islambouli issue as political cover. The real reason for its reluctance to reconcile with Iran, they say, has more to do with Egyptian subservience to U.S. policy in the region – a major plank of which has been the regional isolation of the Islamic Republic.

"The street name and mural aren't the main impediments to rapprochement," said Mohamed Abu al-Hadid, political analyst and head of state-owned print house Dar al-Tahrir, which publishes prominent government daily al-Gomhouriya. "The real issue has more to do with the two countries' differing visions of the region and their conflicting sets of allies and affiliations."

Abdel-Halim Kandil, editor-in-chief of opposition weekly al-Karama, agreed with this assessment, saying that Cairo's diplomatic options had been sorely limited by its close ties to the U.S.

"Cairo fears an angry U.S. response if it moves to reestablish relations with Tehran," he said. "I doubt Egypt has received Washington's permission to take such a step."

"As for the street name, that was changed three years ago," added Kandil, who regularly travels to Iran to attend press events.

In any case, Iran's eagerness for better relations with Cairo – despite the latter's position firmly within the U.S. fold – appears sincere.

In late March, while visiting Egypt to participate in a religious conference, former president Khatami referred to Egypt and Iran as "the two pillars of the Islamic world."

"While president of Iran, I spared no effort … to restore diplomatic relations," he was quoted as saying in the March 29 edition of independent daily al-Masri al-Youm. "Unfortunately, I was unable to realize this goal."

Khatami added that both he and President Mubarak "share a desire for good relations," going on to express hope that the two sides would "summon the will to realize this desire."

Despite these calls for reconciliation, however, Abu al-Hadid said that the current geopolitical dynamic in the Middle East was simply "unsuitable for full diplomatic relations."

"There are many crises going on in the region," he told IPS, citing states of emergency in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. "Unfortunately, Egypt-Iran relations are intimately bound up with these."

But while Cairo appears to be dragging its feet on the issue, state-controlled religious institutions have shown less reluctance.

On June 6, Cairo's prestigious al-Azhar academy, one of the highest religious authorities in the Sunni Muslim world, agreed to normalize academic relations with its Shia counterparts in Iran.

"We welcome this scientific and cultural cooperation," Sheik of al-Azhar Mohamed Sayyed Tantawi was quoted as saying in the local press. He went on to declare that there was "no conflict between Sunni and Shia Islam in terms of their basic elements and beliefs."

According to Abu al-Hadid, however, the significance of such academic and cultural exchanges should not be exaggerated.

"This agreement was made between two international academic institutions in an effort to improve Sunni-Shia relations," he said. "It shouldn't be interpreted as an indicator of warming political ties between the two countries."

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  • Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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