The Egyptian Iranian Relations | Prospects and Challenges
The region of the Middle East has been falling into increased instability and deep crises that are increasingly
The region of the Middle East has been falling into increased instability and deep crises that are increasingly alarming to the interests of the regional powers. Improving relations between countries become vital in this context, since this guarantees important gains, especially in terms of the stability of the governing elites and their interests.
This paper endeavors to shed light on the future of decades-tense relations between Iran and Egypt. Following the 1979 revolution in Iran, the same year of signing the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, tension kept building up between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Egypt.
Nevertheless, it seems that the priorities of the current Iranian regime and the necessities of the regime in Egypt could lead to some development in the relations between the two countries. Iran feels empowered in the region, especially after signing the nuclear deal with the Western powers, and is keen on protecting its strategic interests in Syrian, Lebanon and Yemen. Egypt on the other hand is struggling with its internal stability, and this could mean its willingness to work with those who could help alleviate the economic and security pressures on the regime. This might explain Egypt’s actions to improve its relations with Russia as well, in addition to the shift in the Egyptian media in portraying Iran as a friendly country.
This paper shall discuss the prospects of the Iranian-Egyptian relations and clarify the challenges that could prevent any serious improvement in the relations between the two countries.
What Motivates Reconciliation Between the Two Countries?
- Fighting Terrorism: Everybody’s winning card
Iran has increased its influence in the Arab region, and the Iranian officials have been stressing the importance of the Iranian role to achieve stability and peace in the region. The former Iranian ambassador to Oman said once that the US needs the help of Iran in order to realize the hopes of the peoples of the region and solve the problems of the Middle East. This comes in the context of the continuous worry by the regional competitors in the region, especially the Gulf states, about the increasing influence of Iran in crucial parts of the Arab world. Therefore Iran realizes that it must protect what it has accomplished in the region through regimes loyal to it, such as the faltering Assad regime in Syria, which it is still trying to protect with all its political and military powers. In order to do this, it was necessary to exaggerate the dangers of terrorism in Syria, and through the political and military backing of Russia. The Egyptian regime also emphasized the importance of a political solution in Syria, using the same reasoning of fighting terrorism and preventing it from spreading to other countries in the region. This was expressed by Sisi himself when he met with Ali Mamlok, the head of the National Security Bureau in Syria in Cairo last month. Egypt’s acceptance of a political solution in Syria causes great deal of confusion in the Arab stance that demands the immediate leave of Assad. Therefore the Egyptian position is viewed positively by Iran, and it will try to take advantage of it.
The Sisi’s call to fight terror in Syria also represents a kind of political excuse for Egypt to go on with its own efforts to “fight terror” in return for its position on Syria. The Iranian foreign minister’s assistant for Arab and African issues, Hussein Amir Abdul Lahian, said that the Iranian Republic is concerned with the security and stability of Egypt, and it believes that terror should not be tolerated. He added that his country welcomes the improved relations with Egypt, due to the importance of Egypt in the region and what it represents in its history and future. Such statements come at a time where Egypt is in dire need for international political support to play on the issue of terrorism and highlights Egypt’s role in this regard.
- Economic Considerations
In the beginning of September, the deputy member for Misr Iran Development Bank reveled a restructuring plan for the deposits portfolio in the bank through a dollar certificate that aims at attracting liquidity in foreign currency. Therefore, both countries need to boost their economies, and this means increasing the size of trade between them. The former minister of petroleum, the head of the current government in Egypt, two months ago, that there is no objection to import crude oil from Iran, and that Egypt wishes to reopen the Sumed pipeline which was closed due to the sanctions imposed on Iran.
Lifting the sanctions imposed on Iran would help it achieve economic growth, and the Iranian markets will once again be opened to regional and international investments. On the other hand, the regime in Egypt seems to be stuck with its stumbling economy and increased poverty and soaring unemployment rates, in addition to weak investments in the country, where Iran could have an opportunity to exporting its crude oil. Egypt is also encouraging Iranian tourists to visit the country in order to resuscitate another stumbling sector in the country, especially in light of the increasingly fragile security situation that threatens its future.
- Facing Turkey: A Common Goal
Turkey has constitute a hurdle to the Iranian and Egyptian plans due to the fact that Turkey demands the leave of Assad in Syria, which endangers the Iranian interests that Iran has been trying to protect for so long. Turkey sharply disagrees with the Iranian position in this regard, since it believes that Assad shall have no role in Syria in the future. While the Egyptian regime on the other hand views Turkey and its current president, Erdogan, as the enemy who plots against the interests of the Egyptian people. The Turkish president announced his rejection for the Sisi’s coup two years ago, and sent some serious and angry messages to the military regime there, stressing the importance of reinstating the elected legitimacy in the country. Turkey also received a number of the Muslim Brotherhood leaders who found refuge in Turkey and founded civil and media institutions that caused great deal of unrest to the Sisi’s regime. This infuriated the regime in Egypt and made it keen on finding any opportunity to retaliate through opening channels of dialogue with Iran’s Ali Mamlouk during his visit to Egypt. The regimes in Syria and Egypt fight against the MB movement, and face Turkey that represents a more serious threat to the regime in Egypt as suggested by Faris news agency that reported such statements.
It seems that the political solution that keeps Assad in any discussions about the future of the conflict in Syria, which is adopted by Iran and partially defended by Russia, is also convenient for Egypt which could use this to exert more political pressure on Turkey by keeping the Assad in power.
- Egypt’s stance on Operation Decisive Storm
The military operation, code-named Decisive Storm, is the first Arab direct attempt to curb the Iranian influence in the region that started to pose serious threats to the stability of several Arab countries, especially the Gulf states.
The confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran has become a serious issue in both of Yemen and Syria, politically and militarily, and SA has started to intensify its efforts to unite the political Arab position against the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen in order to achieve the intended objectives of the military operation in Yemen, which ultimately seeks to confront Iran’s bids to destabilize the region.
Therefore, SA has expressed its support for Egypt after the coup, and SA has actually funded the Egyptian economy with billions of dollars according to some reports, which made the Egyptian regime indebted to the supportive Gulf states as clearly expressed in the speeches of Sisi. Nevertheless, while Egyptian officials aired their backing to the Saudi moves in Yemen, the media outlets in Egypt contradicted such positions and there has been constant criticism in the Egyptian media against SA. This culminated in an article written by the editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram newspaper on September 11, that suggests that the calls to remove Assad from power in Syria are wicked. Such comments came in response to King Salman’s visit to the US. These positions prove that the current regime in Egypt, through the open criticism directed at the Saudi government in mainstream Egyptian media outlets, is trying to appease the parties that work against SA. The Sisi’s regime keeps the channels of communication opened with several regional parties, by employing the media at times, and by adopting a diplomatic and placid attitude at others.
This also indicates that the Egyptian-Iranian rapprochement might clash with the wishes of the states that are standing against the Iranian influence in region, most importantly SA, which is still supporting the regime in Egypt. In fact, Al-Masri Al-Youm newspaper talked about another billion dollars in aid to Egypt, which clearly indicates that SA considers Egypt an important party in facing the situation threatening the region.
- Palestine and Iran’s Support to the Resistance Movements
The Palestinian issue has always had an impact on Egypt from the hand due to geographical closeness, and on Iran which claims that it adopts a strategy that supports the resistance in Palestine. Therefore, the Palestinian issue is increasingly important for both countries. The current regime in Egypt has been appeasing the Israelis through launching a fierce war against the Islamists in Egypt, ousting Morsi, weakening the MB movement, and working against the resistance in Gaza, especially Hamas, which is accused by Egypt with terrorism and supporting operations against the Egyptian army. The Sisi’s regime has also increased the pressure on the already war-stricken Gaza strip. Iran on the other hand chooses to support the resistance, and always stresses its enmity to Israel, which makes the Palestinian issue an important factor that would impact any change in the relations between Egypt and Iran.
The Future of the Iranian-Egyptian Relations
The relations between Iran and Egypt has been marred with tension for a long period of time, therefore it is better to keep cautious regarding any development in relations between the two countries. It seems that Iran shall seek better diplomatic and political relations to serve its interests in the region, especially after the nuclear deal with the West, and Egypt on the other hand shall also try to find other alternative to solve its own dilemmas through building new relations with regional powers.
There are two scenarios related to the Iranian-Egyptian relations:
The rapprochement scenario, which means that relations would improve with official or semi-official visit that would lead to increased economic cooperation, in addition to closer political attitudes between the two states, especially in relation to Syria and countering terrorism and the stance against political Islam. This might push the Gulf states to try to influence the regime in Egypt through containment, which ultimately means that the Egyptian regime could keep playing this game, and achieve more gains from both parties.
Relations might deteriorate due to Egypt’s support of the Arab coalition against the policies of Tehran in the region, while avoiding confrontation and open enmity between the two states in order not to affect the trade relations. Saudi Arabia then would try to impose political isolation on Iran and some Arab countries that did not take a clear stance against Iran’s policies in the region.