Nervously and Rapidly, Iran Courts Egypt

While much of the world is focused on Bush’s attempts to demonize and isolate Iran, the Islamic Republic is forging new ties with an unlikely partner, Egypt. Egypt is among the largest recipients of U.S. aid and the only Arab country that equals Iran’s international stature. It is also the only one without an embassy in Tehran. Although the north African nation is not among Iran’s neighbors, its historic influence in the Persian Gulf makes it enormously important in Tehran’s strategic planning in response to American and Israeli pressure.

Relations were severed by Ayatollah Khomeini shortly after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, when Egyptian president Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel and sheltered Iran’s homeless deposed Shah. Egypt retaliated with tacit support for the U.S.-backed Iraqi invasion of Iran. Now after years of aborted steps to repair the damage, recent months have seen a flurry of bilateral visits by cabinet level officials.

Iran is pleased that Egypt has repeatedly warned against a U.S. attack on Iran and refrained from openly attacking Iranian aid to militant Palestinian groups. In January of this year, presidents Ahmadinejad and Mubarak had their first ever conversation by telephone, described as a consultation about the Gaza crisis. Observers in the region consider an ambassador exchange before next summer a certainty.

The thaw is an unprecedented move for Iran. Until now, the U.S.-led campaign to isolate Iran compelled Tehran to deepen ties with states that are similarly harassed by the Bush administration, most notably Russia, China, and the left-leaning republics in Latin America. Iran’s active engagement with the U.S. client states in Afghanistan and Iraq similarly enjoys widespread support among the Islamic Republic’s domestic constituency.

Courting Egypt fits neither category and breaks new ground in the Tehran’s foreign policy. It represents Tehran’s boldest step yet to divide the coalition of conservative Arab states that the Western alliance is intent on building against Iran with Israeli participation. Swallowing the bitter pill that warming to Egypt represents to Iranian policymakers is all the more necessary after Sharjah (a United Arab Emirates constituent) last month granted the hawkish Sarkozy administration the right to build France’s first military base in the Persian Gulf.

Ambivalence and Cooperation

In the Middle East, many analysts are watching the warming of relations with a level of interest that reminds one of Egypt’s historic recognition of Israel. The enthusiasm (and the dwindling resentment) that Iranian overtures generate in Cairo lately are driven by the realization in the region, reinforced by Bush’s dismal Annapolis “peace conference,” that Iran’s cooperation is necessary to make progress in Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine.

Bush’s trip to the Middle East this January failed to rally Washington’s Arab allies against Tehran, as did vice president Dick Cheney’s and defense secretary Robert Gates’ visits previously. This is a sharp reversal. Only a year ago, the ascendance of Iran’s allies in Iraqi politics and Hezbollah’s steadfastness in Lebanon gave rhetorical ammunition to Egyptian and other Arab leaders, who warned of a renewed Iranian plan to export revolution. Since then, the White House’s failure to make its accusations about Iranian nuclear mischief stick or impose effective UN sanctions on Iran has changed the region’s geopolitical calculus. Conservative Arab elites now seem to have concluded that the way to control Shia Iran’s popularity among their Sunni-majority masses is to befriend rather than confront Tehran. (Similar fears in 1980 led to the Iraqi invasion of Iran that left an estimated one million casualties on both sides before it ended in stalemate eight years later.) Nevertheless, none have joined Iran’s call for U.S. forces to leave Iraq or the Gulf waters.

In back-to-back, unprecedented friendly moves blessed by Egypt in December, the Saudi monarch played host to Iran’s president Ahmadinejad at the Haj pilgrimage. And the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), established in 1981 to blunt Iran’s revolution, invited him to its summit.

To be sure, the century-old distrust that divides Iran from its Arab neighbors across the Gulf remains. Iranians still feel bitter about the massive support that GCC member states gave the former government of Iraq in its savage war with Iran. The Council members regularly question Iran’s sovereignty over three disputed islands and none have officially recognized the pro-Iranian government that took office in neighboring Iraq almost two years ago. Nevertheless, as long as they are comforted by the American show of force in the Gulf, the ruling elites of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates welcome the added leverage that they hope an Egyptian embassy in Tehran can afford them.

Wild swings in Iranian-Egyptian relations predate the Revolution in Iran and have in every period resulted from one or the other side championing resistance to American influence in the region. Under the leadership of nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt condemned the 1953 CIA coup that made Iran a client state and laid the foundation for the CENTO pact against revolutionary Arab states. In 1960, he broke off diplomatic relations with Tehran after the Shah extended de facto recognition to Israel. Thereafter, Iran intervened, at times militarily, against Soviet-backed Egyptian influence in the Gulf region. The rivalry ended temporarily in mid-1970s after Anwar Sadat steered Egypt towards the United States. The Shah’s opulent Cairo mausoleum is still guarded by Egyptian authorities.

A Political Cost

As was the case when the Shah and Sadat cooperated, Tehran’s new fondness for friendship with Egypt entails a domestic balancing act between Iranian political poles that favor and caution against opening to the West. On the one hand, the prospect of resumed diplomatic relations is expected to undercut one of Iranian reformists’ trump cards in the country’s upcoming March 14 parliamentary elections. Opposition hopefuls have argued that the Islamic Republic’s support for radical movements Hamas and Hezbollah against the wishes of conservative Arab states is contrary to Iranian national interests. They have long advocated compromise with Israel, Egypt, and the United States.

At the other end of the political spectrum, faithful followers of Ayatollah Khomeini are fiercely opposed to nuclear compromise under pressure, concessions to the United States, and normal relations with Egypt. The fate of Sadat, who was assassinated by Egyptian militants for accommodating Israel, cannot be far from the minds of Iran’s policymakers today as they move rapidly to embrace another Egyptian “infidel,” Hosni Mubarak. Only a generation ago, the same faction did everything to make heroes of Sadat’s killers. It remains to be seen how long their activist constituency will accept their explanation that even the late Imam (Khomeini) would approve “flexibility” under today’s “changed circumstances.” A future Egyptian embassy will have to keep a low profile.

Diplomatic recognition of Egypt may also harm Iran’s considerable political capital among the publics of Muslim-majority countries, whose support is necessary for the success of Iran’s insistence on its nuclear rights. Tehran risks losing even some of the sympathy it gained in Non-Aligned Movement nations last year with its Holocaust conference and condemnation of Israel.

In short, concessions that Iran is making to Egypt come at a steep cost, as did Anwar Sadat’s historic trip to Jerusalem. For this reason, Iranian leaders need to score tangible foreign policy gains in the near future to overcome a likely domestic backlash. The Bush administration should welcome this constructive risk-taking, if only because the breaking of the taboo paves the way for the normalization of U.S. relations with the Islamic Republic.

Rostam Pourzal heads the U.S. branch of the Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran and is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.