Egypt Watches, Worries About Algeria and Iran

Cairo is wary of Tehran's pledge that it is no longer interested in spreading Islamic revolution throughout the Middle East

ANXIOUS about the crisis in Algeria, where a surge of support for Islamic fundamentalists scared a new military-backed government into canceling elections last week, the Egyptian government is also keeping a wary eye on a fount of fundamentalism, Iran.

Officials in Cairo are by no means sure they believe Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani's pledges that Tehran is no longer interested in spreading Islamic revolution in the Middle East. At the same time, they plan to counter Iran's increasingly obvious push for influence in the Persian Gulf region and in Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union.

Egypt's principal worry, explains a Western diplomat, "is that if Algeria becomes a revolutionary Islamic state, you can expect an alliance with Iran and Sudan, and that would really scare the moderate Arab regimes. The feeling is that the Iranians haven't changed their spots at all."

Cairo's concerns about Iranian intentions are rooted both in a centuries-old rivalry between the Shiite Persians and mostly Sunni Arabs, and in more recent experience. Only last year did an Iranian diplomat return to Egypt to mend diplomatic ties broken in 1987, when the Cairo government accused Tehran of fomenting fundamentalist subversion here.

Since the Gulf war ended last March, Egypt has been locked in a low-key diplomatic tussle with Iran for influence in the Gulf, as Saudi Arabia and its neighbors plan their future security.

As the largest state in the Gulf region, with the longest coastline, Iran claimed a leading role in any security arrangement. The Gulf sheikhdoms, though cautious of Shiite fundamentalist penetration, initially appeared impressed by Iran's firm neutrality during the war, and prepared to offer Tehran a regional role.

At the same time, the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members made it plain they were not interested in protection by their wartime allies, Egypt and Syria. Now, however, the situation is less clear.

At their summit last month in Kuwait, the GCC leaders opened the doors to individual bilateral links with Tehran, but stopped short of any collective deal. They may have been scared off by signs that Iran is moving to restore the military strength it dissipated in its eight-year war with Iraq.

Recent press reports, confirmed by US intelligence officials, suggest that Tehran has purchased sophisticated heavy weaponry, including missiles, from North Korea and China. The reports indicate it is purchasing surplus stock from newly independent former Soviet republics.

Meanwhile, Iran's rapid bid to develop ties with the six Muslim republics in Central Asia has prompted a speedy Egyptian reaction in a bid to head off their possible radicalization.

On the diplomatic front, Cairo is planning to open embassies in two of the Muslim republics, says a senior Foreign Ministry official here. In the religious sphere, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak two weeks ago asked the Islamic world's most prestigious institute of learning, Cairo's Al Azhar mosque, to send teachers to work with 70 million Muslims in former Soviet Central Asia.

A seminar at the Egyptian Foreign Ministry's training school dedicated to strengthening Cairo's economic, religious, and political ties with the new Muslim republics, opened last Wednesday also indicates how seriously Egypt takes Iran's overtures.

Closer to home, officials privately expressed surprise that President Rafsanjani last month visited Sudan, where Hassan al-Turabi, the region's best-known Islamic fundamentalist leader, is widely thought to be the power behind President Omar Bashir.

Egypt has long regarded Sudan as within its sphere of influence, and Rafsanjani's unwelcome stopover on returning from an Islamic Conference Organization meeting in Dakar prompted speculation here that Tehran was seeking to use Sudan as a cat's-paw in the Arab world, and that Sudan was laundering Iranian money en route to Algeria's Islamic Salvation Front.

On the broader regional scale, many here have noted that the Iranian government hosted an "anti-Madrid" meeting at the same time the Middle East peace talks were being launched.

"If the peace process falls apart, there will be a fair amount of carping in the Arab world against moderate leaders for having given tacit recognition of Israel's existence by negotiating," says a Western diplomat. "Iran will be ready to wonder very publicly what they got in return."

Stepping into the vacuum left by Iraq's devastation and Syria's move toward the US, Iran seems eager to lead radical Arabs despite being a predominantly Shiite and Persian nation.

"Pan-Arabism is unable to channel frustrations," says Egyptian analyst Mohammed Sid Ahmed. "It is being replaced by Pan-Islamism" inspired by Tehran.

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