Thursday, February 24, 2011

Will Egypt and Iran Now Be Friends?

Add bilateral relations between Teheran and Cairo in the post-Mubarak era to the already boiling Mideast cauldron. The request of two Iranian warships bound for Syria to transit the Suez Canal for the first time since the 1979 Iranian Revolution has met with telling indecisiveness on the part of Egypt's ruling military council.

One barometer of where Sunni Arab Egypt is heading will be the evolution of its bilateral relations with Shi'ite Persian Iran. Another will be the latitude Cairo gives Iran's Hamas-client in Gaza. It is surely not a good omen that the exiled old anti-Semite and anti-Zionist, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, al-Jazeera's rabble-rousing preacher and darling of the Moslem Brotherhood, was granted a platform to address the multitudes at Friday prayers in Tahrir Square.

The Jewish state has long been a bone of contention in Iran-Egypt relations. Iran's 1950 de facto recognition of Israel was put on ice the following year by the newly appointed premier Mohammed Mossadegh; and resumed in 1953 with his downfall. The Arab League, instigated by Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, retaliated against Iran, now directly ruled by Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as Shah, and imposed sanctions. Against the canvass of the Cold War, Nasser aligned with the Soviet Union while the Shah sided with the West. Yet both men felt threatened by the Islamists. Nasser executed Moslem Brotherhood theologian Sayyid Qutb, while the Shah merely exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Attitudes toward Jews also differed. The Shah (who happened to be married to the deposed Egyptian King Farouk's sister) protected his country's 80,000 Jews so that there was little overt anti-Semitism. Far from the institutionalized Holocaust denial of the Islamist-era, Iran's press under the Shah openly covered the Eichmann trial of 50 years ago. Even today, the Iranian Jewish population numbers some 11,000 souls. By the late-1960s, in contrast, Egypt's Jewish community had ceased to exist.
Under Anwar Sadat cordial bilateral relations were finally established. These ended, however, after Iran's 1979 Islamist revolution, reflecting Khomeini's unbendable antagonism toward the Egypt-Israel peace treaty and his temper at Sadat for having granted the Shah temporary asylum. In 1981, the shameless mullahs would dedicate a street to Sadat's assassin.

Despite overtures by Iran on pan-Islamic grounds, Hosni Mubarak remained suspicious of their intentions, convinced that Teheran was organizing insurrection inside Egypt and seeking to influence events in the Sudan and Gaza – Egypt's backyard.

The Mubarak regime had been of two minds about Iran's quest for the atom bomb. In June 2009, Mubarak allowed an Israeli submarine to traverse the canal sending an implicit message that Egypt was committed to stopping the Iranian bomb. Yet Egyptian diplomats simultaneously led the UN mob in claiming that Israel was the real nuclear threat in the region. In November 2009, for example, the Mubarak government criticized an IAEA resolution that required Iran to cease construction of its enrichment facility near Qom. Egypt vacillated; sometimes abstaining at IAEA votes critical of Iran, other times calling on Teheran to cooperate with the international community.

Mubarak and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad met in 2008; the two countries established interest sections in each other's capitals. Yet relations remained strained as Mubarak blamed Iran for Egypt's failure to reconcile Fatah and Hamas. When Cairo barred an Iranian weapons ship from the Suez Canal, Ahmadinejad accused Egypt of selling out the Palestinians in favor of relations with the Zionists. In 2009, when a Hezbollah cell was uncovered preparing to carry out attacks inside Egypt, Mubarak saw further proof that Iran had designs on the Sunni Arab world. (The cell's imprisoned leader escaped during the anti-Mubarak upheaval to Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon.) Mubarak watched warily as the Sunni Moslem Brotherhood, along with its Hamas affiliate, built ecumenical bridges to Shi'ite Iran rooted in their mutual loathing of Israel and disdain for the West.

With all that, toward the end of the Mubarak era, Iran had secured Egypt's agreement for the resumption of direct flights between their respective capitals. Perhaps to delink Cairo from Washington, Iran offered not only to help Egypt develop its nuclear power industry but also to provide it with wheat to cover shortages and ameliorate rising bread prices.

Where are bilateral relations heading? Iranian leaders are positing that the anti-Mubarak uprising was inspired by the Iranian Revolution. Anyhow, the Muslim Brotherhood is an essential part of the dialogue between the opposition and the ruling junta. Moreover, two probable presidential candidates, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Musa and ex-IAEA chief Mohammad ElBarade are both known for their warm ties to Iran. As far as Jerusalem is concerned, this is almost beside the point since even the liberal opposition figure Ayman Nour has called for reassessing the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.

Iran certainly expects relations with Egypt to become "more balanced" and, most likely, for a resumption of full diplomatic relations. But a genuine strategic alliance between the two countries would be unprecedented. After all, Iran, Egypt and Turkey have traditionally been geostrategic rivals. A thin veneer of pan-Islamic solidarity may not be able to overcome the deep-seated patterns of history.
The biggest wildcard is whether the contagion of popular uprisings sweeping the region, notwithstanding the mullahs' utter ruthlessness in putting down dissent, may yet lead to the toppling of Iran's benighted regime and a truly new Middle East.

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--Feb 24, 2011

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