Ahmadinejad visits Cairo: How sect tempers Islamist ties between Egypt, Iran

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to Egypt, the first by an Iranian leader since 1979, is historic. But it comes up against deep-seated animosity between Tehran and the Sunni Gulf states, who back Egypt.

Egyptian Presidency/AP
Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (l.), and Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi pose for photographers in Cairo, Tuesday. Mr. Ahmadinejad arrived in Cairo on Tuesday for the first visit by an Iranian leader in more than three decades, marking a historic departure from years of frigid ties between Egypt and Iran.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in Cairo today in the first visit of an Iranian leader to Egypt since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Although Mr. Ahmadinejad traveled to Egypt for a summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, not specifically to meet with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, his trip highlights the thaw in Egyptian-Iranian relations since an uprising unseated former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Egypt literally rolled out the red carpet for Ahmadinejad and Mr. Morsi greeted the Iranian president with a kiss on the cheek as he welcomed him at the airport. Morsi made the first visit to Tehran by an Egyptian leader in three decades in August, also for a summit.

But while Ahmadinejad's visit is historic, analysts say it does not likely herald the start of close ties between the two regional powerhouses because Egypt has too much to lose with its Sunni Gulf backers and international allies.

“There are very real constraints on Morsi's ability to concretely improve relations with Iran,” says Elijah Zarwan, a Cairo-based senior policy fellow for the European Council on Foreign Relations. With Egyptian state institutions like the intelligence service opposed to strengthening ties with Iran, and Egypt's wealthy allies in the Gulf and the United States also frowning at the prospect, “the costs to closer ties with Iran far outweigh the benefits,” says Mr. Zarwan. The US, European countries, and Cairo's Sunni Gulf allies are all hostile to Shiite powerhouse Iran.

Egypt and Iran cut ties after a 1979 revolution brought hard-line clerics to power in Tehran, while in Egypt then-President Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel. Egypt offered asylum to Iran's exiled leader, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Iran named a street in Tehran after the assassin who killed Sadat. Egypt soon became a major US ally in the region, while Iran became an enemy.

A limited outreach

Morsi began improving relations when he visited Tehran in August for a Non-Aligned Movement summit. Yet he used the visit to criticize Iran for being one of the biggest backers of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has lost the support of most of the Arab world for ordering a violent crackdown on his country's uprising, and to call for Mr. Assad to step down. He also made a subtle dig about Shiite Islam in his summit speech. 

Still, the exchange of visits would have been unthinkable during Mr. Mubarak's reign.

Morsi is under pressure to distinguish himself from Mubarak's foreign policy, and thawing relations with Iran is part of his effort to establish a more independent foreign policy, says Zarwan. Last fall Morsi proposed an initiative to end the Syria crisis that involved Iran in a regional committee, and offered Iran incentives, including restored ties, to end support for the Syrian regime. Iran did not take Egypt's offer, but The Associated Press reports that the two leaders held a 20-minute talk about resolving the Syrian conflict after Ahmadinejad's arrival. The Iranian president also visited the Grand Sheikh of Al Azhar, a respected center of Sunni Muslim scholarship and learning.

And there are other benefits to ending the enmity between the two countries, says Mustapha Kamel Al Sayyid, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo. Egypt is on a very short list of nations that do not have diplomatic relations with Iran. “Even the United Arab Emirates, which has a territorial dispute with Iran, has diplomatic relations with Iran,” he says. “Iran is a very important regional power, and it's in the interest of Egypt to have relations” with such a player.

The Gulf between

But taking serious steps to improve ties with Iran in a more concrete way would come at a high cost for Egypt.

It risks jeopardizing ties with wealthy Gulf Arab countries that are hostile to Iran, like Qatar, which recently gave Egypt $2.5 billion to shore up its finances amid a floundering economy. And the US, which accuses Iran of developing nuclear weapons and has sought to isolate Tehran diplomatically while also levying sanctions on it, would also be deeply dismayed. The US gives Egypt around $1.5 billion every year, mostly in military aid, and its support is seen as key for the $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund loan Egypt is seeking.

A State Department spokeswoman told reporters in a press briefing yesterday that Ahmadinejad's Cairo visit is “an opportunity for the Egyptian government to give him the same strong messages that the international community has been giving about their nuclear behavior, about their terrorist behavior, etc.”

Egypt's foreign minister sought to allay Gulf fears yesterday when he played down Ahmadinejad's visit and said “Egypt's relationship with Iran will never come at the expense of Gulf nations.”

But the obstacles to closer ties aren't just international. Egypt's intelligence service, which plays an important role in Egyptian foreign policy, would be strongly opposed to serious rapprochement, notes Zarwan.

And many Islamists have concerns about the Shiite theocracy as well. The most organized Salafi group in Egypt released a statement criticizing Ahmadinejad's visit, rejecting “Shiite influence on Egypt.” Salafis helped elect Morsi and took nearly a quarter of the seats in Egypt's now-dissolved parliament. Anti-Shiite rhetoric and discrimination against Egypt's tiny Shiite minority are common in Egypt.

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