Nervously and Rapidly, Iran Courts Egypt

Article excerpt

While much of the world is focused on Bush's attempts to demonize and isolate Iran, the Islamic Republic is forging new ties with an unlikely partner, Egypt. Egypt is among the largest recipients of U.S. aid and the only Arab country that equals Iran's international stature. It is also the only one without an embassy in Tehran. Although the north African nation is not among Iran's neighbors, its historic influence in the Persian Gulf makes it enormously important in Tehran's strategic planning in response to American and Israeli pressure.

Relations were severed by Ayatollah Khomeini shortly after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, when Egyptian president Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel and sheltered Iran's homeless deposed Shah. Egypt retaliated with tacit support for the U.S.-backed Iraqi invasion of Iran. Now after years of aborted steps to repair the damage, recent months have seen a flurry of bilateral visits by cabinet level officials.

Iran is pleased that Egypt has repeatedly warned against a U.S. attack on Iran and refrained from openly attacking Iranian aid to militant Palestinian groups. In January of this year, presidents Ahmadinejad and Mubarak had their first ever conversation by telephone, described as a consultation about the Gaza crisis. Observers in the region consider an ambassador exchange before next summer a certainty.

The thaw is an unprecedented move for Iran. Until now, the U.S.-led campaign to isolate Iran compelled Tehran to deepen ties with states that are similarly harassed by the Bush administration, most notably Russia, China, and the left-leaning republics in Latin America. Iran's active engagement with the U.S. client states in Afghanistan and Iraq similarly enjoys widespread support among the Islamic Republic's domestic constituency.

Courting Egypt fits neither category and breaks new ground in the Tehran's foreign policy. It represents Tehran's boldest step yet to divide the coalition of conservative Arab states that the Western alliance is intent on building against Iran with Israeli participation. Swallowing the bitter pill that warming to Egypt represents to Iranian policymakers is all the more necessary after Sharjah (a United Arab Emirates constituent) last month granted the hawkish Sarkozy administration the right to build France's first military base in the Persian Gulf.

Ambivalence and Cooperation

In the Middle East, many analysts are watching the warming of relations with a level of interest that reminds one of Egypt's historic recognition of Israel. The enthusiasm (and the dwindling resentment) that Iranian overtures generate in Cairo lately are driven by the realization in the region, reinforced by Bush's dismal Annapolis "peace conference," that Iran's cooperation is necessary to make progress in Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine.

Bush's trip to the Middle East this January failed to rally Washington's Arab allies against Tehran, as did vice president Dick Cheney's and defense secretary Robert Gates' visits previously. This is a sharp reversal. Only a year ago, the ascendance of Iran's allies in Iraqi politics and Hezbollah's steadfastness in Lebanon gave rhetorical ammunition to Egyptian and other Arab leaders, who warned of a renewed Iranian plan to export revolution. Since then, the White House's failure to make its accusations about Iranian nuclear mischief stick or impose effective UN sanctions on Iran has changed the region's geopolitical calculus. Conservative Arab elites now seem to have concluded that the way to control Shia Iran's popularity among their Sunni-majority masses is to befriend rather than confront Tehran. (Similar fears in 1980 led to the Iraqi invasion of Iran that left an estimated one million casualties on both sides before it ended in stalemate eight years later.) Nevertheless, none have joined Iran's call for U.S. forces to leave Iraq or the Gulf waters.

In back-to-back, unprecedented friendly moves blessed by Egypt in December, the Saudi monarch played host to Iran's president Ahmadinejad at the Haj pilgrimage. …

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