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Iranian-Egyptian Relations

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Iranian-Egyptian Relations

Between Past and Present

Egyptian foreign policy has failed to take firm stances on many crucial challenges that Egypt has been facing during the last three decades. Also, Egypt has been practicing a hesitant foreign policy that is characterized by the disability to take initiatives and to make difficult decisions.

This can be easily noticed by examining the Egyptian stances on a number of vital issues to Egyptian interests, such as the situation in the occupied Palestinian territories, Sudan, Iraq, Lebanon and Somalia.

 

The Egyptian-Iranian clash of interests on the one side, and the nature of the ruling political systems in Cairo and Tehran on the other can explain to a great extent the nature and future of the relationship between the two countries.

 

Egypt and Iran are two major players in both the Arab and regional spheres; therefore, each one of them has goals and a vision of national interests that usually clash with those of the other. And such a clash has been mostly connected to the two countries' stances on foreign policy issues — both regional and international, especially with respect to the West and Iraq. Thus, in most cases, common interests have been absent.

 

Iran's relationship with the West and Israel urged former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser to cut diplomatic ties with it in the 1960s. Afterwards, the rapprochement between Egypt and the West, and Egypt's entrance into a peace treaty with Israel urged Khomeini to re-cut diplomatic ties with Egypt, a severance that came into effect after Egypt's acceptance to host the Shah. Also, the Egyptian support for Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war was a new source of tension in the two countries' relations.

 

Despite the mild improvement in the relationship between Egypt and the Islamic republic after the end of the war, the level of tension in the two countries' relationship increased again due to the Kuwait invasion, and the arrival of US military forces in the region with the support of Arab countries, spearheaded by Egypt.

 

Following the end of the war, there were some signs of détente between the two countries.

 

There was some level of diplomatic relations between Egypt and Iran through interest sections, Egypt supported Iran's membership in the Group of Fifteen (G-15) in 2000, the Iranian President Muhammad Khatami and the Egyptian President Husni Mubarak met on the sidelines of the World Electronic Media Forum in Switzerland in 2003, and Iran changed the name of Tehran's street that carried the name of Khaled al-Islambolly (the assassin of President Anwar al-Sadat).

 

Such détente, however, did not last for long.

 

The relationship between the two countries suddenly deteriorated again in December 2004 as a result of the Egyptian security apparatuses' announcement of uncovering Iranian attempts to use an Iranian diplomat for recruiting an Egyptian spy to perform doubtful operations in Egypt, which included coordinating with Shiite groups and planning for explosions in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

 

Also, after the occupation of Iraq and the rise of Iranian influence there, Iranian-Egyptian relations further worsened.

 

When it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict, the two sides have conflicting interests; Egypt advocates the peace process while the Iranian official discourse strongly denounces it.

 

Deepening the clash between the two countries' contradictory foreign policies, Egypt supports the United Arab Emirates' stance on the issue of the three islands (Tunub al-Kubra ,Tunub al-Sughra, and Abu Musa) allegedly occupied by Iran.

 

It is important to note that Egypt's relationship with Iran has been complicated since the early days of the Islamic Revolution in 1979 because of the Egyptian fear of Khomeini's calls for exporting the revolution and spreading Shiism throughout the Muslim world.

 

Suspicions have also been harbored of the possibility of the existence of a secret relationship between Iran, Israel and the United States that aims at weakening major regional players, especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

 

In such a state of distrust, Iran has been keeping some bargaining chips that it can use with respect to its relationship with Egypt, such as the Egyptian detainees who are accused of belonging to al-Qaeda and others who fought on the side of Iraq during the 1980s.

 

Iran Reorganizing Its Priorities

 

The Iranian political system is strong to a great extent because it enjoys some sort of popular legitimacy, and it renews its political elite.

 

The political system in Iran is strong to a great extent; it enjoys some sort of popular legitimacy and it renews its political elite through a form of elections that resulted in the succession of six presidents to the position of the head of state.

 

Despite such strength, president Ahmadinejad is facing lots of internal problems because of his failure to fulfill the promises he made with respect to economic justice and fighting corruption. The increase in the oil prices allowed him to expand some of the government's social programs, though.

 

The early days of Ahamdinejad's presidency witnessed power struggles between various powerful political forces, which culminated in the defeat of Nejad's allies in the municipal elections and the Assembly of Experts elections in 2006. Nejad was also accused of adopting a high-risk strategy, and of handing out patronage after giving the Revolutionary Guards multi-billion-dollar no-bid contracts and appointing some of his supporters in key positions.

 

Nevertheless, the Iranian political system's might was reflected on its foreign policy despite Ahmadinejad's domestic situation and the Western boycott.

 

Inside Iran, which borders Afghanistan, Iraq, the Caspian sea (a rich reservoir of oil), and the Gulf, there is a considerable consensus on the major goals of foreign policy: pursuing an influential regional role, and maintaining nuclear capabilities for domestic purposes. Yet, there are differences among the various political forces concerning how such goals can be achieved.

 

What concerns us here in the subject matter of Iranian-Egyptian relations is that the Islamic Republic — a major regional power that exercises its influence over a wide geographical area — does not want to be confronted by another powerful regional player like Egypt.

 

Therefore, some observers believe that creating the "hoped-for Shiite crescent" requires neutralizing Egypt by establishing economic relations with it, which would prevent Egypt from interfering with the Iranian plans in the future. Such line of reasoning explains for its advocates the activities of Shiite minorities in many Arab countries, including Egypt itself.

 

The United States may not object to such plans because they would lead to weakening its allies in the region, which in turn means continuing to depend on the United States. It is a policy of "everyone weakening everyone in the region" of which the United States will be the major beneficiary.

 

The disappearance of the Iraqi adversary and the rise in Iranian influence inside Iraq after the occupation encouraged the Islamic Republic — under the presidency of a conservative president — to reorganize its foreign policy cards, suspending the concept of exporting the revolution, and altering its old foreign policy tools.

 

Iran wants to be integrated into the Arab region to come through the internationally-imposed isolation, and to appear as a country that is willing to establish good relations with its neighbors and to build its economic and peaceful nuclear capabilities in cooperation with the international community and the neighboring countries.

 

Such aims can easily be achieved, given the independence Iran enjoys with respect to its international relations, and its non-reliance on external powers.

 

It is important to point out here that the revolutionary legitimacy in Iran has completed its role, and that the demands of the Iranian people cannot be met anymore using the tools of the past. Thus, Iran is currently pursuing its interests at the expense of the influential Arab players.

 

Egypt: Weak Foreign Policy

 

Egyptian policymakers may find it necessary to improve bilateral relations by benefitting from Iran's experience in the field of peaceful nuclear technology.

 

The Egyptian foreign policy towards Iran during the last couple of years cannot be easily understood.

 

Some analysts argue that the international and regional developments have resulted in an US-Iranian rapprochement, which culminated in the talks between the two countries' ambassadors in Baghdad about stability in Iraq in 2007, and the Iranian participation in the talks held in Iraq and Sharm al-Sheikh in the presence of US representatives to discuss the situation in Iraq.

 

In this context, it is easy to understand the absence of any US reservations about the Egyptian-Iranian rapprochement, given the US desire to urge Egypt to play a role in convincing Tehran of working on stabilizing Iraq, which would save the US forces there.

 

However, others view the situation differently, arguing that Egypt enjoys a considerable degree of independence with respect to formulating its foreign policy; therefore, the improvement in its relationship with Tehran came in the context of a wider Arab-Iranian detente.

 

One of the indications of such détente was President Ahmadinejad's attendance of the Gulf Cooperation Council conference for the first time in Doha. The unprecedented invitation by Gulf countries came as a response to the positive messages regarding the peacefulness of Iran's nuclear program, the most important of which was the US National Security report issued in December 2007. The report stated that Iran suspended its military nuclear program in 2003.

 

According to this line of reasoning, Egypt cannot play an influential role in the issues of Iraq or the Emirati islands without resuming its relations with Iran. Egyptian policymakers may also find it necessary to improve bilateral relations through benefitting from the Iranian experience in the field of peaceful nuclear technology, opening new markets in Iran, and enhancing the cooperation in the commerce and tourism fields.

 

Regardless of the different interpretations, what matters the most is the weakness of the Egyptian political regime. The nature of the process of foreign policy formulation, and the absence of a clear vision of the ultimate goals of that policy are two problematic issues as well in which Egypt differ from Iran.

 

The Egyptian internal weakness is embodied in the limitations on freedoms and rights, and in a political regime that produces and protects corruption, disorganization, and internal strives.

 

Such weakness is also manifested in a feeble economy that suffers from chronic problems. Egypt is the biggest importer of wheat in the world, and was given a ranking of 105th on the 2006 transparency corruption perceptions index, which put it next to countries like Djibouti and Burkina Faso.

 

When it comes to the Arab structure, beside the deterioration in status, it has become vulnerable to any interference attempts, which is quite clear in the Occupied Territories, Lebanon, Sudan, Somalia, the Gulf region, and Iraq.

 

This resulted in the emergence of a non-decisive, tame foreign policy that is characterized by feeble reactions, which in turn has affected Egypt together with its foreign relations and the whole Arab region negatively.

 

One of the facts of contemporary foreign policy is that an internally weak state can never have a strong foreign policy.

 

The domination of a single political party and its insistence on accepting neither opposition, nor renewing the political elite weakens foreign policy makers vis-a-vis international powers.

 

Egypt has given up many of its external power factors, and it has not looked for alternatives. The ideas of nationalism and Arab unity, which were the cornerstone of the policies of Nasser's Egypt, do not exist anymore. At the same time, Egypt's relations with the West and Israel have failed at providing it with the necessary capabilities for achieving a true resuscitation that enables Egypt to become an influential regional power as Sadat, followed by Mubarak, believed.

 

Egypt has become an US puppet for no noteworthy compensation.

 

Egypt has become an US puppet for no noteworthy compensation. According to the US statistics in 2007, for instance, the United States' exports to Egypt were worth about US$ 4,958.3 and its imports from Egypt were worth US$ 2,299.5. At the same time, the numbers for countries like Tiwan hovered at US$ 23,572.7 and US$ 35,167.3.

 

Egypt has many power factors that can be used for restoring the status and influence of its foreign policy towards Iran and the whole region. And the whole issue is connected essentially to the political regime and the process of foreign policy formulation.

 

Promoting true democracy, and not confining foreign policy decision-making to the presidential institution can lead to a strong, influential foreign policy.

 

Internal democracy means that foreign policy is supported by a strong parliament that represents the Egyptian people, which gives politicians better chances for maneuvering when it comes to foreign policy issues.

 

The parliament's denouncement of the siege on Gaza, for instance, was a strong base for politicians to resist the siege, and regulate the entrance and exit of Gazans instead of receiving the news of the Palestinians destroying the passage and then attempting to portray themselves as the force behind opening the passage.

 

Also, parliament's rejection of unnecessary spending and unlimited budgets for oppression and detention would ensure that billions of Egyptian pounds are directed towards improving different aspects of people's life, and towards strengthening national economy, which in turn strengthens Egypt's position in any future negotiations.

 

True democracy produces true politicians, who are qualified for understanding what achieves their country's national interests and what hurts them in a world that speaks only the language of power and alliances, and who are capable of dealing with hegemonic international powers that do not allow any regional power to acquire the economic and technological capabilities necessary for scientific, economic and political revivals.

Islamonline 20 Feb. 2008


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