Does Egypt's Iran Opening Signal Regional Shift?

Monday, April 11, 2011

Elizabeth Iskander

Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil al-Arabi's announcement on April 5 that Egypt is prepared to reinstate full diplomatic relations with Iran comes at a strange juncture. With popular protests still ongoing, Egypt's domestic political scene has yet to find its feet. In addition, the trust between the people and the army has been shaken by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces' decision to issue an interim constitution. So why, in the midst of domestic uncertainty, has the transitional government chosen to tackle one of its most complex foreign policy conundrums -- namely, Iran?

Egypt's relationship with Iran has long been unstable, and it is one of the few countries -- along with Israel, the U.S. and Morocco -- without formal diplomatic relations with Tehran. The nature of relations between Egypt and Iran -- the region's two biggest nations and both inheritors of ancient civilizations -- has often swung dramatically from rapprochement to rivalry. The catalyst for these shifts has historically been tied to changes in leadership.

Before Egypt's Free Officers Revolution in 1952, the Shah of Iran and King Farouk of Egypt enjoyed a good relationship. The shah was even briefly married to Farouk's sister Fawzia. After Gamal Abdel Nasser became president of Egypt, hostility came to characterize relations between Tehran and Cairo, as the shah pursued close ties with the U.S. and Israel, while Nasser set about obtaining military support from the Soviet Union. Consequently, diplomatic ties were severed between Tehran and Cairo for 10 years starting in 1960.

In contrast, Anwar al-Sadat, Nasser's successor, developed a close relationship with the shah after he reoriented Egypt toward the West and entered the Camp David negotiations. But the factors that bound Egypt and Iran together in that period also drove them apart after the Islamic Revolution of 1979; when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini rose to power, diplomatic relations broke down once again.

Now that Egypt is entering its post-Mubarak era, the time would seem to be ripe for another shift. However, Egypt's political direction is still unclear, and no prominent personality has stepped in to take the helm after the political crisis, as Hosni Mubarak did after Sadat's assassination. In fact, it may be the absence of a president that has afforded the new foreign minister the freedom to make this gesture now.

How indicative statements and events during this transitional period are of Egypt's foreign policy in the medium to long term is impossible to tell. But there are a number of reasons why Egypt might pursue rapprochement with Iran. It would be a pragmatic move in responding to the shifting balance of power in the region. Iran's nuclear program continues to progress, while Egypt has announced plans to suspend its own civil nuclear program in light of the Japanese nuclear crisis at Fukushima. Cairo may see an advantage in being an ally of the region's only potential nuclear power, aside from Israel.

And if Egyptian policymakers are seeking a new regional strategy, Turkey's success at positioning itself as an international mediator has likely caught Cairo's attention. Turkey's policy of being a friend to all has enabled it to increase its weight in the region without jeopardizing the government's domestic legitimacy. Egypt could follow a similar path. Stronger ties between Tehran and Cairo could perhaps allow Egypt to take the lead in establishing confidence-building measures to prevent nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. Cairo's diplomatic weight gives it the potential to act as a balancer and mediator that could exert some influence in Tehran. Whether this potential can be translated into reality remains to be seen.

Turkey's ties with Iran have also benefited it economically. In Egypt's weakened economic state, the advantages of increased trade with Iran would surely be welcome. But economic concerns may also curtail rapprochement: The U.S. still provides Egypt with substantial aid and has pledged financial support for Egypt's transition, support that could be jeopardized by too close a rapprochement with Iran.

Yet despite America's inevitable concerns, al-Arabi's statements concerning Iran were accompanied by comments on the Camp David agreement and Egypt's position vis-à-vis Gaza. Seeking to differentiate Egypt's new stance from Mubarak's foreign policy strategy, al-Arabi said that Egypt will not have "a special relationship" with Israel as it did in under Mubarak. He also criticized Mubarak's policy of closing the Rafah border with Gaza. These statements may have been calculated to win popularity and legitimacy for the transitional government, whose credibility remains weak. They are also directed at Tehran, long the harshest critic of Egypt's policy regarding Gaza and Israel.

It is unclear to what extent al-Arabi's comments represent a broader shift in Egyptian foreign policy. But in combination with the permission granted to two Iranian warships to pass through the Suez Canal in February -- before al-Arabi's appointment -- indications are that there will be changes in Egypt's foreign policy and the way it views its role in international and regional politics. What is certain is that Egypt is trying to redefine itself. The Egyptian people now seek most of all to have a government that represents them and has credibility in their eyes. Redefining Egypt's role within the region and its relationship with the U.S. and Israel is one way to do this. Facing up to a region that includes Iran is another.

Elizabeth Iskander is a research fellow in International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She holds a Ph.D. in Politics and International Studies from the University of Cambridge. Her research focuses on conflict resolution, politics and religion in the Middle East, with an emphasis on Egypt.

Source: World Politics Review