Iran’s Attempted Rapprochement with Egypt: Implications for Sunni-Shiite Relations

Written by Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael Segall,

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Iran EgyptIranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to Egypt on February 5, 2013, was the first by an Iranian president since the Islamic Revolution. Occurring in the context of a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), he intended the visit as a step toward improving Iran's relations with Egypt in the aftermath of its revolution and the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. Instead, the visit exposed the tensions between two countries that are vying for regional leadership and, more generally, the deepening rift along Sunni-Shiite lines.

Ahmadinejad's visit was not an official one in the context of Iranian-Egyptian bilateral relations. It resulted from Iran's membership in the OIC, with similar invitations having been sent to other Islamic leaders. The meetings that Ahmadinejad, along with his accompanying senior delegation, held with the Egyptian political and religious leadership (including the sheikh of Al-Azhar University) were part of this protocol and did not indicate any warming of ties between the two states. The efforts by the Iranian president and his staff, along with the leadership of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), to portray the visit as an achievement and a step toward enhancing bilateral relations did not succeed; the visit itself did not bring about a breakthrough.

Moreover, during the visit the Iranian president was publicly humiliated both during the press conference he held with senior Al-Azhar officials (in which Iran was called on to put a stop to Shiite subversion in Arab countries) and by the throwing of a shoe at him (an act of debasement in Arab culture). At home, too, the visit was sharply criticized; it was claimed, among other things, that Iran had again been humiliated by Egypt, its policy of flattering Cairo exposed as futile. Moreover, no representative of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei showed up at the airport before Ahmadinejad embarked, and on that day one of the president's associates was detained (and later released).

The failure of Ahmadinejad's attempt to depict the visit as a success, as part of the emergence of a new Islamic axis in the context of the "Islamic Awakening" (as Iran calls the Arab Spring), has to do with the many residues in the two states' relations since they were severed at the behest of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1981. Those residues continue to diminish the possibility of any substantial improvement of relations in the foreseeable future.

Egypt's "Primal Sin" in Iranian Eyes

Iran continues to view Egypt as the party that paved the way to the normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab world, and indeed committed treason against the Arab/Muslim world. From the standpoint of revolutionary Iran, until the revolution that led to the ouster of Mubarak (the "Western ruler)," Egypt was preparing the ground for other Arab states to recognize Israel. Tehran, for its part, severed diplomatic relations with Cairo after it signed the peace treaty with Israel and gave political asylum to the deposed Iranian ruler, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Certain developments in recent years have given the impression that Egyptian-Iranian relations were on the verge of a breakthrough. In each case, conservative circles in Iran have made certain to raise the factors that soured those relations – the murder of Anwar Sadat and the glorification of his assassin, Khalid Islambouli, for whom a street was named in Tehran – while emphasizing "Egypt's betrayal of the Muslims and the Arabs." In 1982, Iran also issued a stamp to commemorate the assassin.

Shiite Subversion in Egypt

Furthermore, Iran carried out subversive activity in Egypt itself in an attempt to export the Shiite revolutionary model1 to the country. It used Lebanese Hizbullah to coordinate both this activity and its military and financial assistance to Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza. Mubarak's Egypt monitored these activities and harshly cracked down on them (also preventing Iran's participation in the Cairo International Book Fair out of fear of Shiite propaganda). In 2009, a network of Hizbullah operatives was arrested who were planning terrorist attacks and the spread of Shiism in Egypt, and constraints were imposed on the activity of the Shiites in the country.

Previously, in 2008, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, head of the International Union for Muslim Scholars, had warned against the "Shiite wave" in the Sunni Arab world, and against Shiite attempts to "infiltrate the Sunni community," which, he said, lacked "cultural immunity" to protect it from the campaign. In an interview with Asharq Alawsat at the end of September 2008, Qaradawi said that "in the Egypt that I have known well for twenty years there was not a single Shiite since the days of Saladin; today the Shiites have managed to infiltrate Egypt....Today they have people who write in the newspapers...write books."2

Qaradawi's warning reverberated during Ahmadinejad's visit to Egypt – as in the scathing words that the sheikh of Al-Azhar University, Ahmed al-Tayyib, and other Egyptian elements hurled at Ahmadinejad (the Salafis were even harsher in condemning Ahmadinejad and Iran). The difference between Egypt in 2008 and Egypt since the revolution is that Al-Azhar is now stronger in status and more independent in decision-making than it was under the secular Egyptian government in the Mubarak period. It has no sense of inferiority toward the Iranian Shiite religious establishment, acts out of a sense of political-religious power, does not intend to let the Iranian "Shiite wave" gain any significant foothold in Egypt or in Arab countries in general, and, of course, does not "buy" Iran's efforts and sweet talk about bringing the two states closer.

That stance emerged in no uncertain terms during Ahmadinejad's meetings with the heads of Al-Azhar (who, in the past, took a more cautious position toward Shiite efforts in Iran). After the pleasantries and Ahmadinejad's emphasis on what was common between Iran and Egypt (culture, history, aid to the Palestinians, the need to fight Israel), al-Tayyib sternly told his guest that Iran should not try to influence the believers in the Sunni countries, including Egypt and its youth, or interfere in the affairs of its neighboring countries in an attempt to infuse them with the Shiite faith. It should not interfere in the Gulf states, and particularly not in Bahrain's affairs. Al-Tayyib also demanded that Ahmadinejad respect the Sunnis and the Arab minority in the Iranian region of Ahvaz, where in recent months Iran had taken severe measures and even executed some members of the Arab minority.3

"You Are Slaughtering Our People"

The state-run Iranian media portrayed the visit in a positive light. It described the "warm reception" Ahmadinejad received, his meetings with the president, the religious establishment, and the editors of the Egyptian media, as well as his visit to the Shiite Al-Hussain Mosque in Cairo (which the Salafis opposed).4 As Ahmadinejad was leaving the Shiite mosque, a shoe was thrown at him – an act expressing profound contempt in Arab culture – by an opponent of the Syrian regime who called out, "You are slaughtering our people." The shoe missed Ahmadinejad, who looked a bit frightened, and hit one of his bodyguards. The attacker was arrested.5

Egypt Still Undecided

While Ahmadinejad was trying to emphasize what the two countries have in common, what actually stood out were their deep-seated political and religious disputes, particularly regarding Iran's strong backing for Syria and its subversion in Bahrain. Indeed, within Iran, Ahmadinejad and his government are becoming a punching bag, and his stance is not necessarily in line with the basic revolutionary foreign policy. From Iran's standpoint, post-Mubarak Egypt has not yet decided whether it stands in the Arab-Western camp or in the revolutionary Islamic camp. Many in Iran suspect that Egypt, even having undergone its revolution, has not changed its policy, that its statements against the West and Israel are mere lip service, and that it is still oriented to the West and the moderate Arab states with their "Western Islam."

No Stamp of Approval

The Egyptians have by no means given Ahmadinejad or Iran a stamp of approval for their policy in the Arab world – let alone for their ongoing support for Syrian president Bashar Assad who continues to slaughter his people. Instead, the Egyptians have highlighted the regional conflicts in the whole Muslim world, presenting Iran as an isolated actor, particularly in its continued backing of the Syrian regime. Egyptian president Morsi conveyed a similar message when he visited Tehran to take part in the conference of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), during which he handed over the movement's presidency to Iran. Thus, the Egyptians, despite the rise of their new government, continue to obstruct Iran's regional ambitions. Iran, for its part, is trying to exploit the Arab world's instability, economic crises, and growing Islamic orientation, along with the West's confusion in the face of these developments, to leverage its status – so far with only partial success.

Unity within Division

The conduct of Ahmadinejad's visit to Egypt, and the media coverage of it in the Arab world and in Iran itself, provided a glimpse into the reemergence and institutionalization of the camps and alliances in the Arab and Islamic world. For now there is no significant movement between the different camps, and the "resistance camp," which Iran presumes to lead, remains limited to its components – Syria and Hizbullah – with Hamas lukewarm since its senior officials left Damascus after Assad began cracking down and Hamas did not want to be perceived as cooperating with him. Despite the "Islamic awakening," then, no new members have joined the camp.

Indeed, Arab states – some of which are still undergoing change while others (especially the Gulf states) are waging a fierce struggle to maintain their stability – have taken a uniform stance toward Iran's attempts to further undermine the old Arab order and, amid the regional turmoil, create a new Iranian order in its stead. This trend has further highlighted the widening gap between Sunnis and Shiites (despite ostensible calls to bridge it during the OIC conference). The vigor and boldness of Iran's attempts to export the Shiite revolutionary model, reflecting its growing confidence since the Arab Spring broke out and the progress in its nuclear program despite Western pressures, have further stoked fears in the Sunni Arab camp.

The stabilization of an Egyptian regime that is in fact run by the Muslim Brotherhood adds a Sunni, religious-ideological element to the familiar Egyptian quest for hegemony in the Arab world (while Saudi Arabia continues, as in the past, to keep a low profile and, behind the scenes, focus its activities both on the Arab world and the United States). This situation only amplifies the differences between Egypt and Iran. Moreover, these developments bring home the fact that the historical Sunni-Shiite struggle is very much alive, further heating up all the arenas of confrontation between Iran and the Sunni Arab world: Syria, Bahrain, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, North Africa and, of course, Egypt. In some of these arenas a struggle is being waged, sometimes covert and sometimes overt, between Iranian subversion (Bahrain) and the Sunni Arab protective mantle, and in some Iran continues to act clandestinely (eastern Saudi Arabia with its large Shiite minority, Egypt, Morocco, and others). Should Iran choose to ramp up its subversive efforts and activate secret cells in different Arab countries, possibly in response to the pressures on Iran, the covert power struggles could escalate into open conflicts.

The Arab Spring Reinforced the Conflict with Iran

The bottom line is that it is precisely the series of upheavals in the Arab world in the context of the Arab Spring, which Iran continues to see as an opportunity to promote its Islamic hegemonic aims, that has widened the gaps between Iran and the Arab states. This is mainly due to Iran's unequivocal backing of Syria, where Assad keeps trying to crush the opposition, and Iran's support for the Shiite opposition in Bahrain.

Beyond the heightened tensions between Iran and the Sunni Arab world, Ahmadinejad's visit also revealed the problems he is having at home as his status erodes toward the end of his eight-year tenure. Even while still in the airport in Iran, his visit began with discordant notes. As noted, no representative of Khamenei showed up (as normally occurs when the president travels abroad), and a short time before his flight took off, his crony Saeed Mortazavi was briefly arrested (as the main suspect in the deaths of prisoners after the protests sparked by the June 2009 presidential elections). Moreover, during Ahmadinejad's sojourn and meetings in Egypt, the conservative Iranian media along with opposition papers and websites harshly criticized him for what they saw as Iran's humiliation in Egypt. The visit to Egypt in January by Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi was also criticized in the Iranian media, mainly on the grounds that Iran's eagerness to renew relations contrasted with the passivity displayed by Cairo.

A Needless Humiliation

The website Asr-e Iran, known for its criticism of the government, wrote that, whereas the senior Iranian officials who took part in the visit went out of their way to renew ties with Egypt, the Egyptians showed indifference – and not for the first time – and called on Iran to change its policy toward Syria and the Arab world, thereby humiliating the Iranians. Strong criticism was also leveled at Ahmadinejad's meeting with the sheikh of Al-Azhar "because despite the smiles the meeting was difficult. The messages that were conveyed [the Shiite subversion] were voiced in the past to the Iranian foreign minister and there was no need for a meeting with the president to voice them again....It did not add to the president's honor." Moreover, at the end of the meeting with the sheikh, the president was again humiliated when the former only sent his adviser to the subsequent press conference with Ahmadinejad, a clear violation of all the rules of protocol and diplomacy. "There is no doubt that this meeting totally violated the three pillars of foreign policy (honor, insight, and interests) as defined by the Supreme Leader, and that may be why the president's website decided to publish photos of the press conference with the sheikh's adviser under the headline 'Press Conference with the Sheikh of Al-Azhar!'"6

Regarding the Iranian foreign minister's visit to Egypt, an editorial of the Mehr News Agency asked "How Much Longer Will Diplomacy Demonstrate Carelessness: Relations with Egypt at What Price?" The article claimed that, despite Egypt's centrality in the Arab and Islamic world, Iran could not afford to pay a heavy price for renewing relations with a state that was still economically dependent on the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. At the same time, Egypt was still displaying suspicion toward Iran, and Saudi Arabia and Qatar were urging Morsi not to warm ties with Tehran. Moreover, during the foreign minister's visit Egypt hosted an "anti-Iranian" conference where support was expressed for the rights of the Arab minority in Iran's Khuzestan province, with official Egyptian representatives participating.

The article went on to call the Egyptian position on Syria "illogical," and criticized Egypt's support for the United Arab Emirates' stance regarding the islands in dispute with Iran, as well as Egypt's position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Given the "lack of clarity" in Egyptian foreign policy, the editorial called on senior Iranian officials to show restraint, not enthusiasm, when it came to renewing ties with Egypt; otherwise Iran's national interests stood to be harmed. "If the Egyptian politicians have to go to the gates of Washington, Doha, and Riyadh to get into Iran, Iranian diplomacy has to redefine and carefully consider the approach to any future relations with Egypt." The article's author recommends curtailing the overt diplomatic activity and focusing on the cultural-media level in order to prepare the ground for any diplomatic activity in the future. The implication is that subversive activity should be stepped up, thereby influencing the population and creating a better basis for diplomatic activity. The article ends by accusing a lobby in Iran of working for relations with Egypt "at any price" (a hint at the president and his delegation) while ignoring Iran's interests and national pride.7

The Baztab website, for its part, criticized a proposal by Iranian foreign minister Salehi before Ahmadinejad's visit that the next round of nuclear talks between Iran and the 5+1 countries be held in Egypt. It asked why, amid the tensions with Turkey over the crisis in Syria, with Ankara moving away from a mediatory role in these talks, the talks should be held precisely in Egypt when its position was similar to, indeed more emphatic than, Turkey's. The site wondered whether the Iranian leaders were really trying to solve the nuclear problem, which poses numerous problems for Iran, or if it was just a public relations exercise aimed at promoting ties with Egypt.8

Morsi in Mubarak's Footsteps?

The conservative paper Jomhouri-e Eslami, which is associated with former president Rafsanjani and consistently takes a critical line on Iranian-Egyptian relations and on Cairo's role in the struggle with Israel and the West, pilloried Morsi for his conduct after being elected president and particularly the extensive powers he arrogated to himself, for his mediatory role in ending the Israeli-Palestinian outbreak of hostilities (Operation Pillar of Defense), and for the praise lavished on him by former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton. Jomhouri-e Eslami assessed in November 2012 that it was still too early to judge whether Morsi would follow in Mubarak's footsteps and become a sort of pharaoh; but the blood of the demonstrators already spilled under his rule could indicate that he was moving in that direction.9

A Growing Space for Shiite-Sunni Friction

In sum, Iranian-Egyptian relations have remained tense. Ahmadinejad's visit to Egypt in the OIC framework not only did not contribute to reconciling positions and renewing ties between the two states, it revealed the wide gap between the Shiite Iranian and Sunni Arab camps, as the latter is undergoing a process of consolidation. This closing of ranks in the Arab world, in the wake of the Arab Spring, along Sunni Islamic and less Arab-nationalist lines further augments the conflicts between the Arab states and Iran, which center on Iran's interventions in their internal affairs with the aim of fomenting further instability and Islamic revolutions.

The rift between Shiite Iran and the Sunni Arab camp is particularly evident along the seam lines, the sensitive and problematic meeting points of Sunni and Shia in a Middle East that is in a process of change. The hottest and most problematic locus of all is Syria, where Iran (with Hizbullah) is indeed confronting the entire Sunni Arab camp (as well as Turkey, whose relations with Iran have greatly deteriorated) and the Western states by backing Assad, which includes assisting him with weapons, manpower (including Hizbullah fighters), and an international hinterland (Russia and China). Another point of active confrontation is Bahrain, where Iran is supporting (through subversion and propaganda) the Shiite opposition as it continues its struggle against the Bahraini royal house – to which Egypt, and particularly Saudi Arabia, give their backing. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are anchors that continue to bind Egypt to the Arab camp, ensuring that it does not move into Iran's embrace.

In Iran, which is awaiting elections that will determine its future course, the still undecided debate over the future of relations with Egypt continues. Those favoring enhanced ties – Ahmadinejad and his government – are trying to take steps in that direction but are encountering fierce domestic criticism. The difficult and tense history of relations between these two states keeps hindering the possibility of improved relations, a possibility that remains as distant as ever.

Iran is realizing that, even though Egypt is undergoing a still-unfinished revolution and has assumed a more Islamic coloration, it is still under the influence of the "moderate" Arab states – Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states – and is sustaining its relations with both the United States and Israel. It was in that context, Iran believes, that a supportive visit to Gaza by an Iranian delegation was blocked by Egypt during the November 2012 fighting. Moreover, Egypt has openly exposed Iran's subversive activity inside Egypt and other Arab countries, particularly in the Gulf, and its efforts for the Shiazation of Sunni populations as a means of implanting the revolutionary Shiite Islamic model.

No breakthrough in Iranian-Egyptian relations, then, appears likely in the near future, despite Morsi's visit to Tehran and Ahmadinejad's historic visit to Cairo. Both visits were unofficial and conducted in the context of participation in broader forums (NAM, OIC). They do not indicate any significant change in the basic Iranian hostility toward Egypt, which it still regards as part of the Western camp along with its Arab partners in the region, or in the Egyptian distrust of the real intentions of revolutionary Iran.

Iran's progress in its nuclear program is intensifying fears among the Arab states. In their view, Iran's nuclearization would create greater space for its political subversion, terror, and the export of its radical brand of Shiite revolution. These perceptions are likely to enhance the unity of the Arab camp – even if it assumes a more Islamic and less Arab-nationalist character – in its confrontation with Iran.

1. In 969 CE, the fourth Fatimid caliph, al-Moezz, conquered Egypt as part of an attempt to create a world Shiite caliphate, building the city of Cairo (al-Qāhira) and the college (madrasa) of Al-Azhar. The Shiite Fatimid caliphate (Ismaili faction) was overthrown in 1171 by Saladin, who returned Egypt to the Sunni fold and turned Al-Azhar into a Sunni stronghold up to the present day.

2. http://nihaia.wordpress.com/2008/12/20/%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%82%D8%B1%D8%B6% D8%A7%D9%88%D9%8A.

3. http://www.okaz.com.sa/new/issues/20130206/PrinCon20130206570754.htm.

4. http://old.irna.ir/News/Politic/Ahmadinejad,-Restoring-ties-with-Iran-Egyptian-politicians%E2%80%99-major-concern/80536017.

5. http://tinyurl.com/b22gu95; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bX3di5f0NwE.

6. http://tinyurl.com/bxkhvqz.

7. http://www.mehrnews.com/fa/newsdetail.aspx?NewsID=1791808.

8. http://tinyurl.com/aa9gkph (Baztab).

9. http://www.jomhourieslami.com/1391/13910907/13910907_01_jomhori_islami_sar_magaleh_ 0001.html.

Publication: Jerusalem Issue Briefs

IDF Lt.-Col. (ret.) Michael (Mickey) Segall, an expert on strategic issues with a focus on Iran, terrorism, and the Middle East, is a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the Terrogence company. 


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