On the eve of the assassination of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981, there was a belief that Egyptian – Iranian relations were on the verge of rapprochement, and the front pages of major Iranian newspapers asserted that Sadat’s departure would lead to good relations with Iran, following the break in relations after the revolution.
The Islamic Republic of Iran, established following the Shah’s overthrow, held a grudge against President Sadat for signing the Camp David Accords, as did many Arab regimes. More importantly, Sadat hosted the Shah until his death. For his part, Sadat justified this by saying that the Shah had supported Egypt in the 1973 war, and also sent oil to Egypt at a time when many countries stalled or refused to help.
From a humanitarian and personal perspective, Sadat’s decision was magnanimous. However, from a political standpoint it caused enmity between Egypt and Iran. Revolutionary Iran attempted to communicate with Sadat’s successor, seeking to restore relations with Egypt, but made a critical mistake by naming a Tehran street after Khalid Islambouli, one of Sadat’s killers. For this reason, the Egyptian authorities refused to normalize relations with Iran, and because Egypt provided military aid to the Iraqi regime during the Iran – Iraq war, the Iranians became hostile to Egypt again.
The rise of Iran’s President Hashemi Rafsanjani in the early 1990s raised hopes of a resumption of relations, particularly after Egypt participated in the war to liberate Kuwait. However, left and right-wing groups in Iran opposed this because of Egyptian involvement in the peace process. This position was inconsistent, as Tehran had previously rejected rapprochement with Egypt at a time when Syria – Iran’s ally – participated in the Geneva Peace Conference. Indeed, Iran reconciled with the Saudis in 1997, despite the fact that Saudi Arabia was geopolitically and ideologically opposed to the revolutionary regime in Iran, and at a time when Egypt had repaired its relations with its greatest regional rivals. For this reason, restoring relations with Egypt remains an unfulfilled goal within the Iranian Foreign Ministry, with a number of Iranian politicians repeatedly expressing their desire for rapprochement with Egypt.
With Mubarak’s downfall and the arrival of the Muslim Brotherhood in power, the door opened to repairing relations. However these aspirations have run into problems, leading some Iranian officials to play down the prospect of restoring ties. During the recent Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran, the Iranians spared no effort to win over the new Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi. After Mursi accepted his invitation, Iran’s hospitality was striking, particularly the huge attention paid to him by his Iranian hosts. One image published by Asharq Al-Awsat shows Ali Akbar Velayati (senior international affairs adviser to Supreme Guide Ayatollah Khamenei) and a number of other Iranian officials huddled closely around the Egyptian president.
Once Mursi took to the podium, and in the introduction of his speech referenced the Four Righteous Caliphs – who are rejected by Shiites – he went on to comment on the situation in Syria, calling on the international community to help the Syrian people topple Bashar al-Assad, an Iranian ally. However, Iranians official media distorted Mursi’s speech, mistranslating it and included issues which Mursi did not address, including Bahrain. This followed the publication of a false – according to the Egyptian presidency – interview with an Iranian media outlet during which Mursi allegedly said he would normalize relations with Tehran.
In reality, the dispute is not between individual leaders, or over differences of opinion regarding slogans and proposals; rather it is the competition of two regional powers that have been unable to overcome their differences. Egypt and Iran have disagreed since the rise of Nasserism and the tide of Arab nationalism, which Iran saw as a challenge to its interests in the Gulf. Even after relations between Iran and Egypt improved during the era of the Shah and Sadat, Egypt – as a country and society – remained unable to communicate with Iran due to cultural differences, including language and religious practice, not to mention the geographic distance between the two countries.
In my opinion, the Iranian regime’s passion for the idea of normalizing relations with Egypt over the past few months has caused it to forget an important truth: that the obstacles to Egypt – Iranian relations reflect a lack of common interests. Tehran’s problem is that it wants Egypt to become another Syria, and it views Egypt like Hezbollah and Hamas, who supported Iran in return for assistance. The Iranian regime wants a follower that will support its ambitions; it did not realize that Egypt has its own interests. In addition to this, the Tehran regime is relying on the fact that it has been close to the Muslim Brotherhood organization since the revolution, and that it has relations with figures such as Kamal el-Helbawy or Fahmy Howeidy. However, it has forgotten that the Brotherhood is now in government, not an opposition group seeking external support, and therefore it seeks to put Egyptian interests first.
Moreover, the Iranians have forgotten that the second largest parliamentary force in Egypt – the Salafis – is against reconciliation. The Brotherhood has so far tried to avoid inciting its Salafi allies. In addition, the Brotherhood ultimately plays a leading religious (Sunni) role for the Arab and Islamic world, while the Iranians are perceived, rightly or wrongly, to represent the region’s Shiites.
In addition to this, Egypt today has strategic and business interests with neighboring countries like Saudi Arabia, exceeding even those under the previous Egyptian regime. These are more substantial than any justification for rapprochement with Tehran. Ultimately the new Egyptian regime, which rests on its political/religious legitimacy, finds itself in a state of competition or confrontation with the Iranian regime because they are fighting over a single source of legitimacy. As a result of the Iranian regime’s keenness to normalize relations with Egypt and because it wants to impose its political agenda, Tehran has failed to understand this.