Last week, the region was preoccupied by news about high-level Egyptian-Iranian meetings which revived expectations about the bilateral relations between these large countries. Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran’s foreign minister, visited Cairo to discuss the Syrian issue. However, his visit was not limited to meetings with Nabil Elaraby, the Arab League Secretary-General. He also met with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, Grand Imam and Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb and the Coptic pope Tawadros II.
Salehi's visit came amid marked deterioration of relations between the ruling Egyptian administration — i.e., the Muslim Brotherhood group — and the United Arab Emirates against the backdrop of the arrest of Muslim Brotherhood cells in the Gulf state. Thus, a link can be established between the timing of Salehi's visit to Cairo and the messages that Morsi's administration intends to send to the involved regional capitals.
Egyptian-Iranian relations since Jan. 25, 2011
Iran warmly welcomed the Egyptian people's uprising against the former regime as soon as it erupted, labeling it as an Islamic revolution inspired by the Iranian revolution, perhaps because Iran assumed that the Muslim Brotherhood would play a significant role after the fall of the regime. Since the fall of Mubarak, there have been expectations that the relations between Cairo and Tehran would return to the ambassadorial level. These expectations reached their peak when the military junta in Egypt allowed two Iranian military warships to cross the Suez Canal. They became self-evident when the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Morsi was elected president in June 2012.
Last summer, when Cairo adopted an initiative to resolve the Syrian crisis by forming a committee including representatives from Egypt, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia, there seemed to be common denominators between Cairo and Tehran. This contributed to increasing speculation about the revival of relations between the two countries. The string of expectations continued to unwind during the visit made by Morsi to Tehran to attend the Non-Aligned Movement Summit in late August 2012. In fact, it seemed clear that Morsi used the summit to send direct political messages at the international, regional, Arab and Egyptian levels, most of which alleviated Iran's desire for rapprochement with Egypt.
Motives behind Egyptian and Iranian rapprochement
Iran is seeking to improve its relationship with Egypt for four main reasons: First, closer ties with Egypt opens a major Arab gate to Iran and gives it a greater margin to maneuver when dealing with the Gulf states. Second, Egyptian-Iranian rapprochement alleviates the severity of Sunni-Shiite tensions, a goal sought by Iran to improve its image in the region. Third, relations with Egypt grant Iran an additional venue to join regional initiatives on Syria, especially after the important Russian-American convergence and following the relative decline in the Iranian clout in the Syrian arena. Fourth, establishing relations with Cairo can prove that all attempts aimed at besieging Iran and imposing regional sanctions have failed. This could also serve to prove that Tehran is expanding its regional presence. This is doubly important in the lead-up to upcoming Iranian-U.S. negotiations and against the backdrop of the all-out political and military attack faced by the entire Iranian axis in the region (Gaza, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq).
In contrast, the Iranian file seems more than important in the framework of the supposed strategic planning of Egyptian regional policy following the popular uprising of 2011, the Egyptian-Iranian bilateral relations being capable of tilting the regional balance. Egypt's direct return to playing regional roles seems difficult and complicated given that the Egyptian presence in the region has declined in the last three decades in a way that had not been seen for over a century and a half.
Despite all of the above and in order for Egypt to improve its position, the key is to diversify regional relations. The fact of the matter is that Egypt cannot claim to be a regional power without maintaining relations with all the major players in the region. The second motive behind rapprochement with Iran resides in this very point.
The third important implication of Egypt’s missing role over the past three decades is that coordination and cooperation with Iran paves the way for it to become part of the political equation in the geographic area extending from Iraq to Lebanon (Egypt has already entered affairs in Gaza). In addition to the three advantages of improved ties with Iran, it seems that Cairo would pay an international and regional price for a return of relations with Iran, whereas Tehran will pay an internal price exclusive to Iranian political wings.
Salehi's visit in the current regional context
During his visit to Tehran, Morsi deliberately let the opportunity to improve Egyptian-Iranian relations slip away. The visit seemed to suggest a wider margin of leverage for Egypt in the region — without a return of ties — and offering the refusal to restore ties as a gift to Salafist currents in Egypt and Gulf Arab countries, which opposed the visit and consequently, oppose to improve relations with Iran. In other words, the Egyptian administration wanted to use the Iran card to improve its regional status, through a careful convergence that ended in a detente with Iran, which seeks to upgrade its ties with Egypt.
Since Riyadh is not willing to make Iran a part of the solution, and the latter desires to gain time by proposing additional members to the quartet, the Egyptian initiative was faced with certain failure, in spite of the idea being well-founded. As the situation on the ground in Syria escalates and the string of international expectations unwinds, Iran has said that the visit of its foreign minister to Egypt was designed to discuss the situation in Syria. However, Iran’s main purpose was political gain Egypt, by meeting with the president, the head of al-Azhar and the Coptic Pope.
In contrast, the image seemed different for Egypt. The visit of Iran’s foreign minister was coupled with two major events. The first is the tension between the Egyptian and UAE administrations, after a Brotherhood cell was arrested in the UAE. The situation escalated as foreign-policy adviser Essam El-Haddad went to the UAE and failed to secure the release of the arrested members. The second began with rumors circulating in the Egyptian media, stating that Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, an elite unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, made a secret visit to Cairo during which he met with Haddad to discuss the restructuring of the Egyptian security bodies and to offer Iranian expertise in this field.
The Egyptian administration let the rumor spread like wildfire in the media, only to deny it a few days later after Iran formally denied the visit. It only makes sense that the visit never took place as there is no real justification for Suleimani to come to Egypt, and because it is impossible for Iran to offer expertise in this sensitive field in the absence of an alliance or any other sort of diplomatic ties between the two countries.
It seemed clear that the timing of Salehi’s visit — in the context of tension with Iran — is intended to be used to their advantage regarding relations with the Gulf. The Morsi administration is exploiting Iran's desire to improve its ties with Egypt as a bargaining card in relations with Gulf states. The regional alliance involving the Egyptian administration, Qatar and Turkey increases the credibility of this conclusion, since it prevents Egypt from having any alliance with Iran.
A short-sighted policy
Failure seems obvious in the development and planning of Egyptian regional policy. A return of ties with Iran — the timing and advantages of which must be fully considered — is in Egypt’s interests. Relations with Iran are not inherently necessary, but are important for the benefits that it can bring to Egypt’s foreign policy in the region. The return of ties certainly does not work against Egypt regarding its relations with Arab countries, and Cairo should not have to choose between its ties with Iran and those with Gulf countries — this would constitute an enormous strategic loss.
Finally, equating the Brotherhood’s interests in their dispute with the UAE to Egypt’s regional policy seems extremely dangerous, as this prioritizes the Brotherhood’s partisan objectives above national interests. Morsi’s policy towards Iran has revealed clear short-sightedness and hastiness to use the Iranian card in the wrong place and at the wrong time. For this reason, indications suggest that Egyptian-Iranian relations might witness temporary improvements, as the situation requires Egypt to blackmail Gulf countries with the threat of Iran.