Since early 2014 there has been a flurry of speculation on the apparently steadily improving relations between Egypt and Iran. A wide range of issues including the fight against Daesh, tourism and increasingly convergent views on the Syrian conflict are cited to support the thesis of a potential rapprochement.
Without doubt Iran and Egypt see eye to eye on a range of regional issues, including combatting extremism and containing regional conflicts, particularly in Yemen, Iraq and Syria. The latter has been a focal point of improving ties mainly due to a shift in Egypt’s policy on Syria since the coup of July 2013 which brought Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to power.
Whilst Iran essentially views the toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood administration in July 2013 as a coup, nevertheless the Islamic Republic has privately welcomed certain policy changes flowing from the forced removal of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, not least Cairo’s pivot toward Damascus.
Signs of improving ties notwithstanding, talk of a rapprochement are not only premature but also completely ignore the big stumbling blocks to a real breakthrough. These relate to ideology, and specifically Egyptian objections to the ideological nature of the Islamic Republic, and the core policy disagreement flowing from the ideological clash, namely sharply divergent views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
On the face of it, Iran and Egypt should be natural friends, both in view of their ancient histories and the resultant rich cultures, and a shared outlook on regional and global trends. Moreover, the two states do not share borders and have no territorial or resource-centred disputes. In view of these immovable facts, the singular oddity of Iranian-Egyptian estrangement comes into ever sharper relief.
This estrangement is firmly rooted in the Iranian revolution and the then Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat’s decision in March 1980 to offer asylum to the former Shah of Iran. Whilst on the face of it this was a humanitarian gesture (the Shah died of cancer four months later) borne out of the two leaders’ exceptionally close relationship, in reality the Egyptian decision was motivated by the realisation of a tectonic shift in the regional balance of power.
The Iranian revolution had so fundamentally altered Iran’s strategic profile from a non-ideological, pro-Western monarchy to a deeply ideological and religious state sworn to opposition to Western influence. In strategic terms, this dramatic shift primarily impacted Iran’s immediate neighbours, notably Iraq and the Gulf states, but nonetheless the Egyptians were alert to the long-term wider consequences and moved early to contain the threat.
The most important manifestation of this fateful Egyptian decision was the extension of significant support to Iraq during the long-running Iran-Iraq War. This even took the form of direct intervention in the conflict. For example, Egyptian special forces reportedly aided Iraq in the April 1988 recapture of the strategically important Al-Faw Peninsula. Iran’s capture of the peninsula two years earlier was correctly assessed in Cairo as a strategic breakthrough in the war and the staging post for a potential knockout punch in so far as the victory allowed the Iranians to threaten Basra from the south.
Strategic positioning aside, the Iranian-Egyptian spat had an acutely personal dimension, as evidenced by the Islamic Republic’s adoption of Sadat’s assassin, Khalid Islambouli, as one of its own martyrs. In a highly provocative move, a central Tehran street was named after Islambouli. In addition, a 1982 commemorative stamp depicted a defiant Islamboui behind bars, with a caption glorifying him as the “revolutionary execution agent” of the “traitor” Sadat.
This incendiary language, coupled with the Islamic Republic’s embrace of the iconic Muslim Brotherhood martyr Sayyid Qutb, created a lasting impression in Cairo that the Islamic Republic and its supporters are committed to the overthrow of the Egyptian regime.
Underscoring the ideological rift between the two states is the perennial Egyptian worry of alleged Iranian meddling in Cairo’s internal affairs. Of chief concern to Cairo is the Islamic Republic’s favourable attitude toward the Muslim Brotherhood, by far the biggest and most influential grassroots political movement in Egypt.
For more than three decades the Islamic Republic has tried but failed to develop strong ties to the Brotherhood and its satellite organisations. Despite broad ideological affinity, policy differences, in some cases with mild sectarian undertones, have militated against a sustainable relationship. The inherent instability of this relationship was dramatically highlighted by Morsi’s refusal to toe Tehran’s line on Syria at the August 2013 non-aligned movement summit in Tehran.
In strategic terms though, the biggest elephant in the room is Tehran and Cairo’s sharply divergent positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Islamic Republic and its supporters are committed to Israel’s destruction, preferably through a referendum, but if required as a result of a cosmic military confrontation.
By stark contrast, Egypt made peace with Israel decades ago, a well-established strategic reality that even a Muslim Brotherhood administration could not question, let alone alter. Absent a major shift in Iranian views and policies on Israel, the bitter rivalry between Tehran and Cairo will continue indefinitely.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.