Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Bilateral Relations: Egypt and Iran Break Diplomatic Ice

By Bernhard Schell

Courtesy IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

CAIRO (IDN) - U.S.-backed president Hosni Mubarak's ouster in a popular uprising in February would have a significant diplomatic fallout if intensive efforts by Egypt and Iran to re-establish diplomatic relations, frozen for the last about 30 years, produce positive results.

That such an outcome is within the realm of possibility is indicated by the Al Arabiya news channel: "Although the nature of relations with the United States and Israel top the foreign affairs agenda in the post-Mubarak era, ties with Iran seem to have become lately more pressing."

Iran cut off ties with Egypt after Mubarak's predecessor President Anwar Al Sadat signed the 1978 Camp David Accords with Israel and provided asylum to Iran's deposed shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Sadat, a close confidant of celebrated President Gamal Abdel Nasser, whom he succeeded in 1970, was assassinated in October 1981, after which Mubarak assumed presidency.

"Egypt was willing to mend fences with Iran at the time of reformist President Mohamed Khatami, from 1997 till 2005, while the situation was completely reversed when hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005," says Al Arabiya's Mohamed Obaid.

The Arabic news channel, launched on March 3, 2003, is based in UAE's Dubai Media City and is partly owned by the Saudi broadcaster Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC). On January 26, 2009, U.S. president Barack Obama gave his first formal interview as president to Al Arabiya.

The possibility of an improvement in relations between Egypt and Iran was replaced by a remarkable deterioration when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005. The two countries exchanged incriminations of spying and infiltration in addition to Egypt accusing Iran of smuggling weapons to Hamas in Gaza and destabilizing Egypt’s national security.

Nevertheless, signs of a thaw emerged in June 2006 when Ali Larijani, head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, visited Cairo as part of a regional tour that took him also to Algeria and Yemen. He was the highest ranking Iranian official to visit Egypt in 27 years.

Egypt's official media quoted Larjani saying: "My being here is proof of our respect for Egypt's role, and this respect is mutual."

He added:"We hope that these issues (frozen ties) are solved in due time." Larijani was also Iran's chief negotiator on the contentious issue of Tehran's nuclear programme. This gave rise to the widespread view that Iran was keen to ensure the Arab world that its nuclear programme was not a threat to Arab countries.

Years later, in addition to tension on the level of governments, a statement made by Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei during the January 25 uprising enraged the Egyptian people. Khamenei argued that the Egyptian revolution was an extension of Iran's Islamic revolution and predicted that an Islamic renaissance would take place in Egypt.

Egyptians who took part in the revolution expressed strong reservations on Khamenei’s statements which, they said, gave the revolution a religious character while in fact it focused on demanding social justice and an end to corruption. They also accused Iran of meddling in Egypt’s domestic affairs.

However, the tension defused when former president Mohamed Khatami gave a speech in which he praised the Egyptian people and said that Egypt has always been a source of inspiration for Iran.

Egyptian Gazette reported on April 4, 2011: "Egypt's army-led transition government has allowed two Iranian warships to travel through the Suez Canal in the first such passage since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution and despite strong objections from Israel."

Against this backdrop, Egypt's newly appointed Foreign Minister Nabil al-Arabi's statement that Cairo is willing to foster bilateral ties with Iran assumes particular significance. Speaking at a meeting with director of Iran's Interest Section in Cairo Mojtaba Amani on April 4, 2011, al-Arabi said: "The Egyptian and Iranian people deserve to have mutual relations reflecting their history and civilization."

"Egypt is open to all countries and the aim is to achieve common interests," he said, adding that Cairo welcomed "opening a new page with Iran."

According to a report by Egyptian daily al-Ahram, Amani handed over a letter by Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi inviting his Egyptian counterpart to visit Tehran.

Earlier, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi welcomed a proposal by al-Arabi for the promotion of the bilateral ties between the two countries, and said Tehran was ready to resume relations with Cairo.

"There have been many ups and downs in the two countries' relations and we hope that under the new conditions we will witness further expansion of relations between the two great nations," Fars news agency quoted Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi saying late in March.

He also underlined that there was no doubt that good ties between the two countries would help restore stability, security and development to the entire region. Salehi said that the Egyptian people strived to materialize their justice seeking moves which was regarded as a new chapter in the country's history. "We would like to once again congratulate them on the occasion," he concluded.

Salehi’s statements were followed by similar ones issued by head of the Iranian Parliament's Committee on National Security and Foreign Policy Alaeddin Boroujerdi. He said, restoring relations with Egypt is extremely important for Iranian diplomacy and urged the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to follow up on the matter thoroughly until that end is reached.

Boroujerdi blamed the former Egyptian regime for being the main obstacle that hindered the resumption of relations between Egypt and Iran. "Now that the regime fell and with the new developments taking place in Egypt, the environment is ready for this step," he said.

Several issues that might have hampered the restoration of diplomatic ties between Egypt and Iran still need to be addressed like the approach to the peace process, nuclear proliferation, and security in the Gulf region, observers say.

However, they say, preliminary signs indicate that both sides are willing to resolve pending issues in a rational manner that works towards guaranteeing stability in the region and reaching a formula of understanding that serves all parties involved