A newly assertive Iran unsettles cautious Egypt

Daily News Egypt
9 Min Read

CAIRO: Egyptian officials have done their utmost to squelch the uproar caused by President Hosni Mubarak’s suggestion last week that the Shiites in Iraq and the Gulf are more loyal to Iran than their own countries, saying the remarks were taken out of context. Both Iraq and Iran took umbrage, of course, with Baghdad canceling its participation in an Arab League meeting held about Iraq in Cairo on Tuesday.

Whatever Mubarak’s intent, his comments undoubtedly reflect growing concern in Egypt and among the region’s Sunni-majority, largely secular states about the Islamic Republic’s influence in Iraq and strategic assertiveness on several other issues.

As the Middle East’s two largest states, Egypt and Iran are vital to the region’s stability. The disruption of their alliance after the Islamic revolution of 1979 and Egypt’s subsequent peace with Israel was therefore of great strategic significance. Relations improved slightly under the Khatami presidency but have stalled since the election of the more conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Discord in several areas, from Iraq tothe nuclear standoff, to Iran’s position on Israel; have put a rapprochement on hold.

Dr. Anoush Ehteshami, an expert on Iran at the University of Durham, says a number of factors, including external pressure, are causing Egypt and Iran to hold back.

“I think Egypt has taken a step back, partly in response to pressure from America, who don’t want to see Egypt, a critical country in the region, befriended by Iran, he says. “Egypt is also very worried about the Shiite dimension to post-Saddam Iraq and obviously does not want to be pandering to Iran when the rest of the Arab world is so concerned.

For its part, Ahmadinejad’s Iran, says Ehteshami, is more concerned with cultivating ties to Syria, Hezbollah and Iraq’s Shiite parties, than Egypt. It is precisely those ties to the Shiite parties in Iraq, greatly increasing Iran’s influence in the Middle East, that is unsettling Egypt at present.

An Arab diplomat with extensive knowledge of Iranian-Egyptian relations, who asked not to be named, says Mubarak’s comments may have been inaccurate, but his concerns are legitimate.

“What Mubarak was trying to say, but not correctly, was that there are political parties completely loyal to Iran. Just as there were Communist parties loyal to Moscow, he says. “If you have parties with the doctrine of Wilayat Al-Faqih, then it leads to questions.

The diplomat cites as an example the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a key part of the ruling United Iraqi Alliance (UIA). SCIRI’s headquarters were once in Tehran and its militia, the Badr Brigades, were trained by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. This places a “shadow of doubt over their loyalty to Iraq, he says.

Dr. Pakinam El-Sharkawy, professor of political science at Cairo University, says that while many states initially criticized Iran’s role, they are adapting.

“Now I think Egypt shares the view of most of the Arab actors that Iran has a role in Iraq whether they want it or not; it’s a matter of geography and history, she says. “The question now is how to manage that in a positive way.

One element in the postponed Egyptian-Iranian rapprochement is the election of Ahmadinejad, an assertive hardliner who has championed Iran’s nuclear program. But the absence of the more conciliatory Khatami is perhaps not as significant as it might seem, says Sharkawy.

“I don’t put a lot of emphasis on Ahmadinejad’s election because the Egyptian leadership already perceive[s] the Iranian system as completely under the homogeneity of the conservatives, she says, “even if there is a moderate president or a moderate faction of the elites governing.

The conservative Guardian Council and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei hold real power in Iran, a major stumbling block even under Khatami, according to the Arab diplomat. The controversy over a street in Tehran named after Egyptian President Anwar Al-Sadat’s assassin, Khaled Al-Islambuli, an emotional point of dispute between the two states, was typical, he says.

“Around the time the street name was changed they erected a large portrait of Islambuli near the [Egyptian] embassy, says the diplomat. “So the reform camp would do what was needed and the real center of power would always do something to torpedo it.

Ahmadinejad announced with great pomp on April 13 that Iran has begun enriching uranium and is therefore a “nuclear power, increasing the chances of a showdown with the UN Security Council and the United States.

Iran’s nuclear program presents a diplomatic quandary for Egypt, which officially favors a nuclear free zone in the Middle East, but feels Tehran shouldn’t be singled out while Israel gets a free pass on its already weoponized program. At the same time, Egypt worries about the strategic challenge posed by a nuclear Iran and the dangers a U.S.-Iranian confrontation could pose while further destabilizing the region with war still raging in Iraq.

“The last thing Cairo wants is more American engagement militarily, putting pressure on the alliance with Egypt and with others in the region, says Ehstehami.

If the Security Council sanctions Iran, which Egypt opposes, or if recent reports in the New Yorker magazine that the Bush administration plans to launch air strikes on Iran prove accurate, there are fears that Tehran could strike back through its allies in Iraq, Lebanon and the Gulf. In that sense, the nuclear issue is connected to Iraq and the fears of a growing regional sectarian divide.

“Any escalation between Iran and the Americans could turn into a regional confrontation or turn into a Sunni-Shiite conflict, says the Arab diplomat. “This is not simply an issue of a rogue state in the middle of nowhere that can be contained without any spillover.

The diplomat also voiced fears that Iran will use its nuclear program to assert its ambitious regional agenda, and he is skeptical of Iran’s claim that the program will benefit the whole Islamic community.

“They try to portray it as for the benefit of the Islamic world, he says, “but it will serve Iranian national interests; Persian national interests in the Gulf and extending to the rest of the Middle East. In that sense it is very, very worrying.

With Hamas’ victory in the Palestinian elections, Tehran now also has unexpected leverage in the Arab-Israeli conflict, a key U.S. and Egyptian strategic interest. Hamas has ties to Iran, while Egypt held great sway with Fatah, whose policy on negotiations gels with its own. Iran doesn’t recognize Israel, however, and Hamas’ victory came on the heels of statements by Ahmadinejad that Israel should be “wiped off the map.

As Iran continues to throw around its strategic weight, the Mubarak government finds itself caught between safeguarding what it regards as Egypt’s national interest, satisfying its ties to the U.S., and repairing a traditional alliance.

Ehteshami says that there is no immediate solution to this dilemma. “The irony is that Iranian-Egyptian relations have been the anchor of regional relations going back hundreds of years, he says. “There will be a natural balance returned to the relationship, but at present the question of Israel, Iran’s nuclear relationship, Iraq and the much harsher foreign policy line coming out of Iran seem to mitigate against that.

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