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
"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
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
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
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
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
"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
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."