Egypt and Iran: A Quest for Normalized Ties Amid Significant Obstacles

Egypt and Iran appear to be moving toward a closer relationship and a mending of ties. In recent months, officials from both countries have engaged in multiple rounds of talks, potentially signaling the beginning of a new chapter in Egyptian-Iranian relations, which have been strained for over four decades. Encouraged by recent strides made in the normalization of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, along with an emerging de-escalation dynamic in the region, Cairo seems to be willing to reassess its ties with Tehran in hopes of restoring political and diplomatic relations between the two countries. While normalizing relations would have significant regional and global implications, the effort also faces several obstacles that might impact its prospects for success.

What Went Wrong?

Egypt and Iran had good relations during the 1970s. Under the rule of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Iran maintained close ties with Egypt under then President Anwar al-Sadat. However, relations between the two countries began deteriorating in the wake of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which significantly changed regional dynamics and impacted the bilateral relations between Cairo and Tehran. In 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the revolution, decided to sever diplomatic ties with Egypt due to its signing the Camp David Accords with Israel. The tensions between the two countries deepened when President Sadat gave refuge to the deposed Shah in Egypt, where he died and was buried in 1980. Furthermore, relations worsened when Iran named a street in its capital after Khalid al-Islambouli, an Egyptian army lieutenant who was involved in the assassination of Sadat in 1981. The tensions between the two countries endured throughout the 1980s due to Egypt’s support for Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War. However, there were some positive developments in the 1990s when both nations reached an agreement to restore diplomatic relations, albeit limited to the level of chargé d’affaires. Also, in December 2003 an important meeting took place between then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Khatami, marking the first encounter between the leaders of Egypt and Iran in decades.

After the January 25, 2011 Revolution in Egypt, there was optimism about a potential restoration of relations between Cairo and Tehran. This was particularly evident when late Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi visited Tehran on August 30, 2012 to participate in a Non-Aligned Movement summit. Morsi’s visit marked the first by an Egyptian president to Iran since the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Also, in February 2013, then Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Egypt to attend an Organization of Islamic Cooperation summit. However, despite these positive signs, no significant change or breakthrough in bilateral relations occurred.

A New Phase?

In recent months, there has been a noticeable improvement in relations between Cairo and Tehran. It appears that both parties are actively seeking to repair and normalize their ties. Encouraged by a recent breakthrough in Saudi-Iran relations, which resulted in a complete restoration of ties after seven years of tension and conflict, Cairo and Tehran have initiated talks and conducted multiple rounds of discussions to mend their bilateral relations. In fact, these talks began a couple of years ago. According to some reports, an Iranian intelligence delegation visited Cairo in July 2021 and engaged in discussions with Egyptian counterparts from the General Intelligence Service. The primary objective of these talks was to explore possibilities for improving bilateral relations and to develop strategies aimed at preventing any potential misunderstandings or clashes pertaining to regional issues. The talks were also followed by some confidence-building measures from both sides, such as refraining from engaging in offensive political or media discourse and avoiding any actions that would upset either party. Furthermore, a security meeting took place during current Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s visit to Oman in June 2022, where Egyptian and Iranian officials convened. This meeting was followed by another unannounced meeting in Cairo in November 2022 involving Director of the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate Abbas Kamel and Iranian Vice President Ali Salajegheh. The latter visited Egypt to participate in the COP27 climate summit that was held in Sharm el-Sheikh in November 2022 and met with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry.

Notable progress in the dialogue between Egypt and Iran came approximately one year ago, as Oman mediated between the two countries.

Notable progress in the dialogue between Egypt and Iran came approximately one year ago, as Oman mediated between the two countries to facilitate the advancement of bilateral relations. The Omani mediation was supported by Iraqi efforts, bringing the two nations closer together. Multiple reports indicate that since March 2023, discussions focusing on the normalization of relations have been held in Baghdad. For example, officials from Egypt and Iran met in Baghdad in April, engaging in substantive discussions aimed at the enhancement of their bilateral relations. Furthermore, in May, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian expressed his optimism regarding the prospects of improving relations between Iran and Egypt and emphasized the importance of both countries taking reciprocal measures to strengthen their ties.

There has been a notable increase in friendly and optimistic statements, particularly from the Iranian side, regarding relations between Cairo and Tehran. In March, Nasser Kanaani, spokesperson for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, stressed the importance of restoring relations with Egypt and emphasized the need for new measures to enhance bilateral ties. Additionally, Fada-Hossein Maleki, an Iranian lawmaker and member of the Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, recently revealed that discussions aimed at strengthening relations between Iran and Egypt have been taking place in Baghdad over the past few months. He further revealed that an agreement has been reached between Tehran and Cairo to reestablish diplomatic relations and reopen their respective embassies.

Additionally, there have been reports suggesting that both sides are actively exploring the possibility of a meeting between President Sisi and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, indicating that discussions between Cairo and Tehran have progressed significantly. Adding to these positive developments, on May 29, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei welcomed restoring diplomatic relations with Egypt during a meeting with Oman’s Sultan in Tehran. This further highlights the growing momentum toward improving relations between the two countries.

Mutual Benefits

Egypt and Iran each have their own reasons for wanting to improve bilateral relations. For Cairo, the pursuit of improved relations with Tehran holds significant importance, as it could achieve several vital interests for Egypt. Foremost among these is the need to safeguard the crucial waterway of the Suez Canal and ensure the safe passage of ships through Bab al-Mandab Strait, which has been impacted by the conflict in Yemen.

Additionally, Cairo is seeking to strengthen regional and strategic cooperation with Tehran on various pressing issues, including those related to Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Palestine. For example, Egypt’s desire to mitigate tensions in the Gaza Strip stands as a prominent motive for seeking closer ties with Tehran given Iran’s close relationships with several Palestinian groups, particularly Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Cairo is keen on maintaining stability in the strip and avoiding a military escalation with Israel. Furthermore, Egypt plays a crucial role in the Palestinian reconciliation process, which necessitates communication with Iran in the pursuit of stability in Gaza.

Cairo is seeking to strengthen regional and strategic cooperation with Tehran on various pressing issues.

The development of economic and trade cooperation between Egypt and Iran is another key dimension, albeit one that has remained limited due to strained relations in the past. The economic aspect carries vital significance for the Sisi regime, which currently faces a severe economic crisis characterized by high inflation and mounting external debt. Restoring relations between Cairo and Tehran would facilitate an influx of Iranian tourists to Egypt, potentially contributing much-needed hard currency to the country. Moreover, Egypt stands to benefit greatly from expanding its export of goods to the Iranian market.

For Tehran, restoring and normalizing ties with Egypt holds immense benefits. First, it would thwart the isolation efforts that the US and Israel have been trying to impose on the country. Tel Aviv has been actively working to create a regional alliance against Tehran, involving some Gulf nations, Egypt, and Jordan to curtail Iran’s regional influence and potentially launch military strikes on its nuclear facilities. Thus, the convergence between Egypt and Iran poses a significant challenge to these Israeli efforts. Second, improving relations with Egypt would strengthen Iran’s regional presence and safeguard its strategic interests in the Arab region, especially if the ties between Cairo and Tehran deepen. It would also contribute to reducing Iran’s tensions with Arab Gulf states, as Egypt holds a crucial position as an ally to these countries. Furthermore, establishing a normal relationship with Egypt would pave the way for enhanced economic cooperation and access to the vast Egyptian market, which presents substantial potential for Iranian products. This, in turn, would lead to increased financial returns for Tehran and assist in mitigating its economic crisis.

Cautious Optimism

The notion of mending ties between Egypt and Iran is not a new one. Similar attempts have been made over the past three decades with no success. However, what sets this attempt apart are two factors: the level of effort invested and changing regional and global dynamics. In previous attempts, no concrete mediation steps were taken between the two countries; instead, there were merely hopeful statements from each side expressing a desire to mend relations. This time, however, there have been extraordinary efforts by Iraq and Oman to facilitate direct talks and to bring the parties together.

Regarding the impact of regional and global dynamics, the normalization of ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran has had a ripple effect throughout the region, creating an atmosphere of optimism for de-escalating conflicts that has not been seen in the past decade. The prevailing wisdom in the region is that if Saudi Arabia and Iran, despite their tensions, have managed to address their issues and normalize relations, then why not strive for the same outcome with other countries? Moreover, the normalization between Saudi Arabia and Iran removes any potential veto, real or perceived, from Gulf countries on the Sisi regime’s decision to normalize ties with Tehran. In fact, Sisi could potentially use this development as a pretext to justify the normalization of relations with Iran.

The normalization between Saudi Arabia and Iran removes any potential veto on Cairo’s decision to normalize ties with Tehran.

On a global scale, the ongoing war in Ukraine and China’s increasing influence in the Middle East and North Africa have had a significant impact on regional dynamics and could bring Egypt and Iran closer than ever to normalizing their relations. First, both countries have strong ties with Russia and China, offering the potential for substantial political, economic, and geostrategic benefits. Second, both countries are leveraging competition between the US and China to further their regional agendas and pursue their interests. Egypt is strengthening its relationship with Moscow, while Iran is utilizing its relations with Moscow and Beijing to mitigate the impact of US sanctions and avoid isolation.

Key Challenges

Nevertheless, the process of normalizing relations between Egypt and Iran faces several challenges. First, Egypt maintains a cautious stance towards Iran’s regional role and influence, perceiving it as a potential threat to its own regional interests. Despite its current weakened state, Egypt still aspires to maintain its status as a regional power, which may give rise to tensions with other regional actors, particularly Iran and Turkey.

Second, Iran’s strong relations with Palestinian factions pose a potential obstacle to the normalization of ties with Cairo. Both Egypt and Iran may engage in a power struggle to exert influence over these factions, driven by their own interests and agendas. Such competition may potentially give rise to tensions and clashes between the two sides, further complicating the process of normalization. Third, a critical hurdle lies in the contrasting positions of both countries concerning their respective relationships with Israel. While the Sisi regime in Egypt maintains strong ties with Tel Aviv, Iran remains a key adversary of Israel. This incongruity raises concerns about Egypt’s ability to effectively strike a balance between its relations with Tehran and Tel Aviv.

Furthermore, Egypt’s strategic ties with the US may impede its ability to develop robust relations with Iran, given that Tehran remains a staunch adversary of Washington. Egypt’s alliance with the US may limit its ability to forge closer ties with Iran, potentially posing a challenge to the normalization process. Successfully navigating these obstacles will require careful diplomacy and astute management of various competing interests, both regionally and internationally.

Normalizing relations between Egypt and Iran entails significant regional and global implications and could reshape the existing regional order. However, the readiness of both countries to address the numerous challenges that lie ahead remains uncertain, making it premature to predict the outcome of the current process of normalization between both countries.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

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