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COMMENTARY No. 22

a CANADIAN SECURITY INTELLIGENCE SERVICE publication


EGYPT AND IRAN: REGIONAL RIVALS AT DIPLOMATIC ODDS

May 1992

Unclassified

Editors Note:

During the past dozen years, a number of developments in the Middle East have polarized and embittered the once cordial relations between two of the region's most powerful states. The Islamic revolution following Khomeini's ascendancy in 1979, the First (Iran/Iraq) Gulf War, Iran's continued opposition the "treacherous Camp David Accords" and the Second Gulf War have all left an undercurrent of suspicion and often open hostility between Egypt and Iran which continues to threaten stability in the region.

Dr. Wm. Millward, a Strategic Analyst in the Analysis and Production Branch of CSIS, explores in detail the three principal obstacles to peaceful relations still firmly in place between these two countries.


Disclaimer: Publication of an article in the COMMENTARY series does not imply CSIS authentication of the information nor CSIS endorsement of the author's views.


The Gulf War of 1991 radically altered the dynamics of the Arab interstate system. It left at least one of the pre-existing councils and alliances in ruins and the Arab world itself divided into two hostile camps. But one regional relationship which survived the war intact, and essentially unchanged, was the stand-off between the two influential regional powers of Egypt and Iran.

In the last several months the climate of suspicion and apprehension between the two states has noticeably escalated. In any new regional balance of power and security structure in the wake of the recent Gulf War, a new climate of understanding and mutual relations will have to be created between these influential regional actors. In view of their history of unfriendly rivalry, and ideological difference over the last several decades, prospects for the early resolution of tension (and suspicion) between them are slight. Recent developments in the region appear only to have aggravated an already strained relationship.

The Diplomatic Legacy

Egypt and Iran have been competing centres of civilization and military power from ancient times. Both were conquered by Arab/Muslim armies from the Arabian peninsula in the mid-7th century and subsequently incorporated into the universal Islamic empire. In the medieval and early modern period they represented rival centres of Islamic learning and cultural tradition, as well as competing poles of regional dynastic power.

As long as Egypt and Iran were governed by monarchies, their relations in the 20th century could be described as relatively cordial. For a long period they shared a common interest of struggle to throw off the yoke of colonial interference and domination from Great Britain. The two royal houses were in fact joined together briefly in the abortive marriage of Muhammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran to Princess Fawzia, the sister of King Farouk of Egypt in 1939.

With the overthrow of the Egyptian monarchy in 1952 and the emergence of Col. Nasser as the republican champion of the pan-Arab cause, relations between the two countries deteriorated. Egypt's ill-fated adventure in the Yemen in the early 1960s drew pointed criticism from the Iranian authorities, and the Egyptians responded with revanchist threats to reclaim Iran's Khuzestan province—which they called Arabistan—for the glory of the Arab world.

Nasser's successor, Anwar Sadat, began his career as a military man and a staunch member of the Revolutionary Command Council that overthrew the monarchy and erected the republican system in Egypt. Nevertheless, when he took over the presidency, on Nasser's death in 1970, he became a close friend and confidant of that quintessential monarch, the Shah of Iran. Diplomatic ties were cemented and commercial relations expanded. Egypt under Sadat regarded the Shah as a partner in stability for the region and a bulwark against rising currents of Islamic extremism.

Relations between Egypt and Iran collapsed with the sudden eruption of the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1978-79. When the Shah fell, Egypt was bound to disapprove of his replacement, the Ayatollah, who returned the sentiment in full measure. Having had its own domestic misfortunes with Islamic extremists—the Muslim Brothers and groups such as al-Takfir wa al-Hijra—the Egyptian authorities were dismayed by the sudden appearance of a radical, anti-western and anti-Israeli Muslim movement in power in Iran. Ayatollah Khomeini and his supporters, for their part, reciprocated the antipathy, compounded by their disgust for the leader who had made peace with Israel, and then given refuge to the deposed and fugitive Shah. The Ayatollah personally gave instructions that formal relations with Egypt be severed on the signing of the Camp David agreements in 1979.

The First Gulf War

Eighteen months after the establishment of the Islamic Republic in Iran, Iraqi troops invaded the country in the hope of dislodging the new régime while it was still recovering from the internal upheaval of revolution. Thus began an eight-year conflict without parallel for destructive power and human cost on both sides in the Middle East up to that time. The Islamic Republic maintained from the outset that it did not want conflict with its neighbour, and branded the Iraqi intrusion as "the imposed war". This position would have found more credibility in international circles had the Iranians taken the initiative to stop the war on more than one occasion when they had the advantage and were occupying Iraqi territory.

The fact that most of Iraq's Arab neighbours rushed to support its claims against the Islamic Republic meant they were obliged to provide the money and even troops to continue the war once it became clear that Iran would not submit and was even likely to take the offensive. Egypt provided discreet help to Iraq in the form of equipment, advisers and "volunteers" against Iran. Only the refusal of Libya and Syria to join the war effort prevented Saddam from being able to claim his conflict with the Islamic Republic was a war of Arab vs. Ajam (Persians). The Islamic Republic's media lent credence to the claim by accusing Iraq's Arab supporters of being motivated only by "racial considerations with no regard for justice and truth" [Tehran Times, 22 April 1990, p.2.].

While the war continued on the border between Iran and Iraq, Egypt found itself involved in a proxy-war closer to home. In 1984, Egypt accused Iran and Libya of planting mines which destroyed 14 ships in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Suez. After on-going investigations of Muslim extremist groups in Egypt, the authorities concluded in May 1987 that such groups were funded by Iran, and thus severed all ties with the Islamic Republic.

Despite its assistance to Iraq, Egypt's relations with Iran during the Iran-Iraq War were conducted in the context of relative diplomatic isolation from its Arab brothers after being expelled from the Arab League as a result of the Camp David agreement. By joining the anti-Camp David Arab consensus, Iran appeared to be adding further insult to Egypt's injury. It was no doubt partly to win back Arab approval and further diplomatic recognition that Egypt declared itself ready, following an Iranian missile attack on a Kuwaiti oil terminal in October 1987, to support the Gulf states in the event of direct attack from Iran. It was a source of bitter irony—some would say gall and humiliation—for Egypt's leadership that this grand commitment had to be honoured not after an attack on Kuwait from Iran, but from Iraq, Egypt's former partner-in-arms against Iran, in 1990-91.

Between the Gulf Wars

When the First Gulf War ended in July 1988, Iran held thousands of Arab prisoners, including troops from Egypt, Jordan, Sudan and other Arab states. Egypt's main concern was to win the release of its own nationals, but as long as Ayatollah Khomeini lived, no special effort was made to release them, nor to restore diplomatic relations. In June 1989, following his death, Iran embarked on a new policy of rapprochement and accommodation with its Arab and Middle Eastern neighbours.

In January 1990, Iran expressed its interest in bilateral co-operation with Egypt in several agricultural areas. Through the mediation channels of Amman and Syria, Iran conveyed its interest in a broad dialogue with Egypt on such diverse issues as boosting the capital of the Egypt-Iran Bank in Cairo, joint investment and other banking ventures, the resumption of trade and industrial exchanges, and the release of the 100-odd Egyptian prisoners of war held in Iranian prisons.

Whereas the Islamic Republic may have signalled an interest in expanding relations with Egypt, its official position remained what it was when relations were severed more than a decade earlier: "No connection with Egypt is possible as long as the Cairo régime is shamefully part of the treacherous Camp David Accords", trumpeted the Tehran Times [19 March 1990, p.2]. The validity of this view was confirmed several days later by First Deputy Foreign Minister Ali-Mohammad Besharati, who made it clear that Iran would be pleased to restore relations with an Egypt that had withdrawn from the Camp David agreement since it was seeking "to establish close ties with the Muslim and revolutionary nation (people) of Egypt". [FBIS-NES-90-084, 1 May 1990, p. 31].

This position would appear to be a foreign policy principle on which there is an unshakeable consensus between the factions of the current Iranian power structure. Since there is no apparent room for Egypt under its present leadership to withdraw from the Camp David framework, it is assumed that the Iranian side is resigned to dealing with Egypt with less than full diplomatic relations for the foreseeable future. Perhaps sensing the immovability of this position, the Egyptian response was that any change in relations with Iran would be linked to the problem of Egyptian prisoners held by Iran, and Iran's compliance with the articles of Security Council Resolution 598 to reach a final and peaceful settlement of the Iraqi-Iranian conflict.

The Second Gulf War

Just as Egypt's diplomatic position within the Arab world was improving, and measures were being taken to move the Arab League headquarters back to Cairo, Iraq invaded Kuwait and provided Egyptian President Mubarak with a particularly galling rebuke for the mediation efforts he had made to resolve the differences between the two. As a partner with Iraq in the Arab Co-operation Council, the damage suffered by Egypt to its diplomatic credibility in Arab/Muslim circles would be hard to underestimate. Although Egypt joined the allied coalition to drive Iraq from Kuwait and committed a substantial contingent to the joint forces, their role in the action was largely supportive and was over-shadowed by their much smaller though higher-profile Saudi hosts. The benefit to Egypt from the Gulf War came largely from the cancellation of debts owed to the United States, its wartime ally, an association which could hardly gain it any extra credit with the Iranian régime.

Comparatively speaking, the Islamic Republic emerged from the Gulf War with its capacity for shrewdness and balance enhanced because of its successful neutrality. It had good reason to feel satisfaction at the spectacle Iraq humbled on the battlefield by superior arms in the hands of others, including some of its erstwhile allies against Iran. In addition to the benefit of windfall profits from increased oil sales during the height of the embargo against Iraq, Iran could feel more secure and perhaps even find an opportunity in seeing the military and weapons production capacity of its chief power rival in the region drastically reduced. What Iran could not accomplish on its own it was quite willing to let others do for it.

Developments Since the Second Gulf War

Whatever their respective positions in the regional diplomatic equation, the fact remains that one year after the second Gulf War, the relationship between Egypt and Iran remains what it was when the war began, and had been for a decade beforehand. The war has had no visible impact on the status of the relationship. Iran now has official diplomatic relations with all the Arab countries except Egypt. This includes Saudi Arabia, with whom Iran has quarrelled bitterly over pilgrimage administration and quotas as recently as 1988.

Conventional geopolitical wisdom on the Middle East region posits the need for co-operation and consensus among the three major military and population centres of Egypt, Iran and Turkey, if relative stability in the area is the goal. The only axis where full recognition and co-operation is missing is Egypt-Iran. The two states have broadly equal population and manpower bases, and with Iran now in the process of refurbishing its weapons and equipment programs, relative military parity between them is anticipated. What is keeping these two states apart, since both espouse regional stability based on co-operation and common interest as a principle of their foreign policies? There are three basic obstacles.

The first and most intractable is the on-going issue which caused the rupture of relations initially—Egypt's commitment to the Camp David Accords and peace with Israel at the expense of the Palestinian people. There are few issues of foreign policy more vital and central to Egypt's role in the region than its Camp David obligations. Although it resulted in a decade of relative estrangement and isolation from the rest of the Arab world, and cost the life of the state leader who signed the accords, Egypt under his successor has hewed to the agreement and regained most of its original influential role in inter-Arab councils. It has always hoped to convert the other Arab states to this cornerstone of its regional policy for peace and stability, and on the basis of recent evidence from the renewed peace process, it may be making some headway in this endeavour with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Egypt is unlikely to change this policy position under its present leadership since it would cost the financial and military support of the United States and the moral backing of other western countries, without which Egypt would be economically threatened and its regional influence greatly diminished.

Iran's position is diametrically opposed to Egypt's. There are few issues of policy on which the Iranian power factions agree, but there is no room for doubt or disagreement among them on the legacy bequeathed them by the "Imam's line", i.e., Ayatollah Khomeini. Clear-cut opposition to any moves in the direction of peace with Israel, the usurper of Palestinian rights and the occupier of Palestinian land and Muslim holy places in Jerusalem, would constitute a betrayal of the Muslim/Palestinian people. As the vanguard state of the Muslim movement, the Islamic Republic could not afford to surrender its leadership role of this Islamic issue without serious loss of credibility. It is opposed to the current round of peace talks, and even sponsored a counter-conference on Palestine in Tehran in December 1991, to which all those opposed to the US-Russian framework were invited. Mr. Rafsanjani himself, the most powerful figure in the current Iranian régime and the leader of the so-called "moderate" faction, appeared at the conference and endorsed its objectives. The Iranian view is that the current round of peace talks is essentially a sham, and has only served to gain further legitimacy for Israel. The Iranian authorities have never disguised their ultimate ambition to see the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem restored to their rightful owners. There is no prospect this position will change as long as the present régime presides.

A second serious cause of alienation and dissension between Egypt and Iran is the former's fear of the Islamic factor. Contrary to the allegations of some Egyptian observers and commentators, the incidence of what they call Islamic extremism in Egypt cannot be ascribed solely to the example of Iran since 1979 and the exhortations of Ayatollah Khomeini and his successors. Egypt has always had its own home-grown Islamic partisans and enthusiasts who have caused problems for the Egyptian authorities as far back as the beginning of the colonial occupation and perhaps even earlier. Without doubt the Iranian example has encouraged and expanded this sentiment in Egypt and may well have been a contributing factor in the assassination of President Sadat. What worries the Egyptian régime is the interpretation put on this event by many Iranian sources; i.e., that Sadat was executed revolutionarily by the righteous wrath of Muslim partisans in Egypt for his betrayal of the Palestinian/Muslim cause.

Other recent developments in the region have exacerbated this source of tension and division between the two countries. Early in December 1991 President Hashemi-Rafsanjani paid a state visit to Sudan on his return from an Islamic conference in Dakar, accompanied by a large retinue of officials, including the commander of the IRGC and the chief of state security. The reception they received from Sudanese officialdom and the public was unprecedented in recent Sudanese experience. Crowds thronged the streets lined with pictures of the Ayatollah Khomeini and current régime leaders. The demonstrations were probably not simply a display of enthusiasm for the Islamic Republic and its revolutionary claims, but also an angry protest against the punitive measures taken against Sudan by Saudi Arabia and other coalition partners for its ostensible support for Iraq in the second Gulf war. Sudan, after all, supported Iraq against Iran in the first Gulf war.

But there is no denying a sudden and apparently very real convergence of interest between Sudan and the Islamic Republic. Since Egypt and Sudan have traditionally been very closely associated, any sudden intrusion of an Iranian presence in Sudan would be regarded as a potential threat to Egyptian interests in its southern exposure. What causes the Egyptian authorities great concern is the rumour of substantial military equipment and training facilities to be supplied Sudan by the Iranians. Although rumours of a contingent of 450 (one report said 3000) IRGC personnel being sent to Sudan were put in circulation by both Iranian and Sudanese opposition groups, they are nonetheless a source of anxiety even if unconfirmed.

In the same vein, the Islamic movement appears to be gaining ground in Africa and the Maghreb. Well publicized events in Algeria in recent months, and less sensational but equally menacing activity by al-Nahda and Islamic elements in Tunisia, all of which are said to be encouraged by Iranian financial and moral support, could easily give the Egyptian authorities the impression that Egypt was being seriously outflanked, if not surrounded, by opposition forces both on its own doorstep and in its own backyard. While some of these developments in Sudan should be seen in the light of the recent failure and neglect of Egyptian policy toward its southern neighbour, the emergence of a Khartoum-Tehran axis based on Islamic revolutionary premises can only be seen in Egypt as one more barrier to its own influence in the region. Some Egyptian media and political circles did not help matters when they interpreted the Rafsanjani visit to Sudan as a conspiracy scenario.

A third factor which impedes the development of diplomatic and friendly relations between Egypt and Iran is the mistrust that Egypt harbours of Iran's regional intentions. This factor has come to the fore in the aftermath of the second Gulf war and the arrangements for Gulf security in future. The Damascus Declaration of March 1991 envisaged a purely Arab plan for security in the Gulf based on the formula of six plus two—the six states of the Gulf Co-operation Council, plus Egypt and Syria, two coalition partners in the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait. In the year since then the Gulf states themselves have had second thoughts about the desirability of being defended by Egyptian and Syrian troops stationed on their territory. The principal guarantors of Gulf security currently are the United States and its European allies, primarily Great Britain.

In the process, in deference to Iran's rising power, the majority of the Gulf states have come around to the view that no security structure for the region can hope to succeed if it does not include Iranian participation and agreement. This was the source of considerable irritation and rhetorical combat from the Egyptian authorities, who took the rather myopic view that Gulf security was an Arab concern and non-Arab parties should not interfere in the matter. Since Iran is the most populous nation in the region and borders the Gulf along the whole of its northern coast, it was unrealistic to expect it could be excluded from any new Gulf security plan. Egypt's desire to be involved in new arrangements were understandable from a financial point of view, since it would mean considerable, much-needed revenue from the Gulf states. The Iranian view was that if the 6+2 scheme was meant to guarantee the safety of land frontiers in some of the Arab countries, then Iran had nothing against it. But otherwise, as a security scheme to guarantee peace and stability in the [Persian] Gulf, it could only be considered a joke. Egypt's anxiety to have a role in Persian Gulf security arrangements would be like Iran wanting to ensure the security of the Suez Canal. [Tehran Times, 29 June 1991, p.2.].

The Future of a Relationship

As things stand now, more than one year after the end of Desert Storm, the Gulf states have agreed that security arrangements for the region should include a no-trespassers notice banning all non-Gulf Arab countries, such as Egypt and Syria. Egypt no doubt shares the concern of many western governments that "the Shah's swollen vision of Iran as policeman and protector of the Gulf is alive and well and living in Tehran." [The Economist, February 15, 1992, p.19]. From the point of view of their own security, the two régimes have to cope with sporadic and unpredictable outbursts of protest caused principally by economic hardship. Although neither régime is presently threatened by instability, the Egyptians claim that their internal problems are aggravated deliberately by Iranian-inspired and financed subversion based on ideological enmity. The same claims have not been levelled at Egypt by Iran.

Added to this is the realization that Iran is favourably placed to make headway in building strong ties with the Muslim states of Central Asia. Several factors support the extension of Iranian influence in this region. One is relative geographic proximity and the community of interest it generates; another is the ethnic and linguistic affinity with Tajikistan, one of the newly independent states. There is a presumed barrier of difference between Iran and most of these states on the basis of their Turkish ethnicity and Sunni Islamic tradition, but the Iranians are historically well acquainted and broadly experienced in dealing with their Turkic co-religionists, and have substantial Turkic populations inside their own borders, with ethnic kin on the other side.

The real unanswered question at this stage is to what extent the Iranians will be successful in selling their brand of militant Islam to their co-religionists in the former communist-dominated USSR. With the failure of the socialist/communist ideology, and the development disaster it has wrought in parts of the region in the form of environmental pollution, it may be that the people of the area will turn to the Islamic alternative rather than embracing the capitalist model of development which has its own dubious environmental record. However that transpires, Egypt will doubtless see Iran's efforts in Central Asia as undesirable and will attempt to counter its influence and potential. The Egyptian authorities are already contemplating embassies in several Muslim republics and President Mubarak has asked al-Azhar University to send teachers to work with the seventy million Muslims in former Soviet Central Asia, the majority of whom, as in Egypt, adhere to the Sunni rite.

Rivalry and competition for influence in trade and cultural affairs between Egypt and Iran will not be a bad thing for the peoples of the Muslim republics. They will have a choice of assistance and advantageous commercial exchange. They will doubtless choose the option which appears less costly and with fewer disadvantages. The fact of greater proximity and thus shorter delivery time will tend to favour Iranian manufacturers and suppliers. Iran's relatively better economic position and resource base will probably give it a further competitive edge. Provided the assistance and exchanges come with no strings attached, and are not accompanied by subversive meddling in their internal political affairs, the Central Asian states will most likely see Iran as a more natural and logical partner in their future development plans.

For their part the Egyptians will continue to be apprehensive about Iran's intentions both in Central Asia and the Middle East. There has been a low level Iranian envoy in Cairo since April 1991 to facilitate expanding commercial relations, but his status will not likely be up-graded soon. The predominant official feeling in Egypt is that the Iranians, for all their talk about a new foreign policy of friendship and co-operation, have not changed their spots or their intentions one iota, and their ultimate goal is to foment Islamic revolution in as many separate Muslim states as possible.

As long as this feeling persists, and is fed by the belief that there is continuing evidence for Iranian inspired subversion and potential violence in Egypt and Sudan, not to mention elsewhere, there is no prospect of an early resumption of full diplomatic relations. The relationship will perhaps expand to a limited degree in the realms of finance and banking, and in agricultural co-operation, but will remain frozen, if not hostile, on the formal level. It is ironic that the important and influential Arab Muslim state of Egypt can have formal relations with Israel, but not with another equally important fraternal state in the region. Only a change of regime, not currently discernible on the horizon, is likely to alter this state of affairs.


The views expressed herein are those of the author, who may be contacted by writing to :

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ISSN 1192-277X
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