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Explaining the Egyptian-Iranian ‘rapprochement’

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, surrounded by top military generals in Cairo, Egypt [file photo]
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, surrounded by top military generals in Cairo, Egypt [file photo]

Indicators of the Egyptian-Iranian rapprochement have escalated after decades of estrangement that dictated the relationship between the two countries, especially in the final years of Mubarak’s rule.

It is interesting that this relative “rapprochement” came after a period of almost complete agreement between Cairo and the Gulf countries in general, especially with Saudi Arabia. This shocked Riyadh, who had strongly contributed to establishing Al-Sisi’s rule after the coup on 3 July.

These indicators also escalated after the decline of Saudi Arabia’s financial support of the Egyptian government and this drove many to interpret the decline of support as a response to Al-Sisi’s position and an attempt to attract Iranian economic support. Although this interpretation does have some legitimacy to some extent, it is not enough to explain the complex and ambiguous political positions.

What are the reasons for the Egyptian-Iranian “rapprochement” over the controversial issues in the region?

Rapprochement indicators

The indicators of the Egyptian-Iranian rapprochement started to emerge after Al-Sisi’s coup on 3 July 2013, as at the time, the Egyptian government could not show its leaning towards Iran in order not to anger the Gulf countries who sponsored the coup, especially Saudi Arabia.

The main indicator at that time was the position on the Syrian crisis, as the Egyptian government abandoned President Morsi’s discourse that supported the revolution and opposed to the Iranian intervention in Syria, which reached its climax during the “Support of the Syrian Revolution” festival on 5 June 2013.

Al-Sisi’s government harassed the Syrian refugees in Egypt by imposing permits on them, but more importantly was the Egyptian officials’ repeated statements saying that the Syrian people should decide Al-Assad’s fate. This is a diplomatic expression of its opposition to the Saudi approach that demanded the departure of Al-Assad. This basically was in line with Iran’s position.

The Egyptian positions moving towards Iran and away from Riyadh’s position remained timid and unofficial on many occasions, especially during the rule of the late Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz. They were expressed through statements to journalists and newspapers close to Al-Sisi’s government, in addition to taking diplomatic measures towards rapprochement with Tehran’s allies, such as the Iraqi government and Al-Assad’s regime.

However, the indicators of the rapprochement began to surface quickly after Saudi monarch Salman bin Abdul Aziz took the reigns of power in January 2015. Al-Sisi’s government gradually shed the political considerations that influenced its decisions due to the great support it received from Riyadh for the coup during Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz’s rule.

Saudi Arabia’s launch of its operations in Yemen, which it called Operation Decisive Storm, was an important turning point in Egypt aligning its position with Tehran. Cairo refused to give any practical or even political support that would match up to Saudi Arabia’s expectations, as Saudi Arabia considers itself responsible for establishing Al-Sisi’s government.

More importantly about the convergence of the Egyptian and Iranian positions is the voting of the Egyptian ambassador to the UN Security Council in favour of the Russian draft resolution regarding Syria on 9 October. This vote was seen as “painful” by the Saudi ambassador to the UN.

It seems that Egypt’s vote in favour of Russia motivated Saudi Arabia’s decision to stop a shipment of oil due to be sent to Egypt in October. Cairo responded to this decision with a massive media campaign that reached the level of some Al-Sisi supporters demanding that Egypt resort to Iran for aid as an alternative to Saudi aid.

Motives behind the Egyptian position

Some explanations for Egypt’s shift towards Tehran have considered this as part of Al-Sisi’s government’s approach to looking for a new supporter to replace Saudi Arabia after Riyadh’s financial support declined. However, explaining Cairo’s position is linked to strategic considerations that are not mainly associated with money, but rather to its vision of its foreign relations and internal conflicts.

The first consideration is associated with Cairo’s vision of its position as a “leader” and big sister to the Arab countries. Therefore, it cannot agree to be a subsidiary of another Arab state, especially Saudi Arabia, Egypt, which competed with Egypt for the leadership position in the early years post-independence.

If Al-Sisi’s government had agreed to a sort of “subordination” to Riyadh at the beginning of its rule, even if on a formality level, due to the extent of Saudi Arabia’s enormous financial backing, the deep state will definitely not allow this situation to continue.

Based on this, Egypt is willing to make foreign political decisions merely to enroot itself in a leadership position. It is worth remembering Cairo’s position, bluntly expressed by former foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, when he said in a TV interview that Egypt hindered the summit called for by Qatar during the attack on the Gaza Strip in 2008 because it did not receive the approval of President Mubarak and King Abdullah.

The position admitted by Aboul Gheit can contribute to the interpretation of Egypt’s behavior, in that the decision of rapprochement with Iran was only made to prove that the Egyptian leadership role rejects subordination to another country, especially Saudi Arabia.

The second consideration that plays a critical role in Egypt’s policy, which seems closer to Iran’s, is Cairo’s position on the popular revolutions that began in Tunisia in 2011.

Cairo considers all popular revolutions to be a type of chaos and an attempt to create a new Arab government that would put an end to the political government and the layer of interests existing since the formation of the Qatari state after independence. Therefore, any victory of a revolution would be considered a defeat for Cairo and the system it represents.

This could explain the Egyptian position on the Syrian crisis, as Cairo is, to some extent, in Iran’s camp, which wants to prevent the victory of the revolution and the fall of the Assad regime.

Although Egypt’s position is not expressed with blatant and sharp political or military support for Al-Assad’s regime, as is the case with Iran, the ultimate outcome is the alignment of the Egyptian approach with Tehran’s vision, which is based on three elements: the rejection of foreign interference, especially military intervention (with the exception of Iran, of course!), the Syrian people must determine the fate of Assad, and considering everyone (or almost everyone in the case of Egypt) who opposes the regime a terrorist.

Hence, Egypt is not in Tehran’s camp regarding the situation in Syria out of love for Iran, but out of fear from the success of the revolution and the defeat of the regional system that was established after independence in the Arab region.

The third consideration in creating the Egyptian foreign policy that is shifting more and more towards Iran is hostility towards the Sunni Islamic movements, especially the Muslim Brotherhood.

This consideration can explain Cairo’s position, which is closer to Iran’s, towards the war in Yemen. The Egyptian deep state believes that the defeat of the Houthis and the old state, led by ousted president Ali Saleh, necessarily means the victory of the other camp that the Islah Party, which is closely associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, is an important component of.

Cairo does not assume this position in order to oppose Saudi Arabia, but because it considers the victory of a camp consisting of a party affiliated with the Muslim brotherhood as a defeat to itself. Therefore, it sees itself closer to the Houthi camp and its allies, even if its position leads to sabotaging its relationship with Saudi Arabia.

Motives behind Iran’s position

Iran took a supportive position of the January revolution since it began, and it considered the revolution to be a manifestation of “the inspiration of the Iranian Islamic Revolution, and it sought to improve its relations with the new Egypt, especially during the year that President Morsi “ruled”.

However, Iran’s desire clashed with Morsi’s position on the Syrian crisis, especially in the last few weeks leading up to the 3 July coup. This led to Tehran taking a stance supporting the coup by means of its media outlets standing with the 30 June events and what followed, as well as its quick recognition and acknowledgement of the coup-led government and announcing its complete willingness to deal with the government.

Despite the heavy history of the Egyptian-Iranian relations, Tehran sought to achieve rapprochement with the coup-led government in a serious manner, and this can be explained with three strategic factors.

The first factor is Syria, as the Syrian issue is considered the main determiner of relations between Iran and its foreign policies. Therefore, it is willing to ally with the “devil” if it would take a similar position to its position towards the Syrian crisis. Due to the fact that the Egyptian position on the crisis is considered “positive” in the eyes of the Iranians, this may be considered a sufficient justification for the rapprochement with “yesterday’s enemies” in Cairo’s government.

The second factor in forming the Iranian position towards the rapprochement with Egypt has to do with Tehran’s desire to distance Egypt from Saudi Arabia, as any improvement in the Iranian- Egyptian relationship would inevitably be at the expense of Cairo’s relations with Riyadh.

Therefore, the Islamic republic is willing to provide all it can in order to guarantee its rapprochement with Egypt and in order to prevent the formation of an Egyptian-Saudi axis that would stand in the way of its selfish ambitions in the Arab region.

The third factor has to do with the weakness of the Egyptian state. Despite the state of strategic competition between Egypt and Iran, the state of weakness experienced by the Egyptian state causes it to lose its place as a “serious” contender for Tehran. This encourages the latter to reconcile with a country that is politically, economically, and security exhausted and cannot pose a strategic danger, at lease during the current state.

Ultimately, Iran is building its position towards rapprochement with Egypt is based on strategic bases related to its regional position. Meanwhile the conflicts and disagreements of the Egyptian government and its internal rivals have taken control over strategic decisions regarding the extent of rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia. This is being done at the expense of forming axes with other Arab countries, such a Saudi Arabia.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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AfricaArticleEgyptIranMiddle EastOpinionSaudi ArabiaSyriaYemen
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