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Strange Bedfellows

To the already boiling Middle East cauldron, add the prospect of new bilateral relations between two powers that have historically kept each other at arm's length: Egypt (Sunni, Arab, lately a client of the United States) and Iran (Shiite, Persian, patron of Hizballah and Hamas). One bone of contention between them has long been the Jewish state of Israel.

Relevant Links
Egypt-Iran Relations  Ariel Farrar-Wellman, Robert Frasco, American Enterprise Institute. An overview of the situation between the two powers on the economic, military, diplomatic, and nuclear fronts as of summer 2010.
Iran, Egypt, and the Muslim Brotherhood  Olga Davidson, Mohammad Mahallati, Bitter Lemons. The two countries have lurched from passion to revulsion and back again; neither can ignore the challenge of the other. (2004)

Under the West-facing shah, Iran recognized Israel in the 1950s; the act triggered the Arab League's retaliatory sanctions, instigated by the East-facing Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser. The shah also protected his country's 80,000 Jews, and in 1960-61 the Iranian press openly covered the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Even today, the Iranian Jewish population numbers some 11,000 souls; by contrast, Egypt's Jewish community, persecuted and expropriated, had ceased to exist by the late 1960s.

If anything may have helped bring Egypt and Iran together in those days, it was the specter of Islamism. Impelled by that threat, the shah exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, while Nasser, taking more direct measures, executed the Muslim Brotherhood theologian Sayyid Qutb. The persistence of the same threat, along with the end of Egypt's romance with the Soviet Union, may well have been a factor underlying the establishment of cordial relations between the two countries after Anwar Sadat succeeded Nasser in 1970. These relations ended, however, after Iran's 1979 Islamist revolution. Not only was the triumphant Khomeini furious at Sadat for having granted temporary asylum to the shah, but he was also unbendingly hostile to the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. In 1981, the mullahs in Tehran would name a street after Sadat's Islamist assassin.

Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's next president, was convinced that Tehran was organizing insurrection inside his country and seeking to influence events in its backyard, especially in Sudan and Gaza. And then there was Iran's quest for the atom bomb, a prospect that clearly worried Mubarak but which he approached with caution and equivocation. Sometimes Egypt abstained from IAEA votes critical of Tehran; at other times it called on the mullahs to cooperate with the international community. Meanwhile, at the UN, Egyptian diplomats led the mob insisting that the real nuclear threat in the region was Israel.

Mubarak and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad met in 2008, and afterward the two countries established interest sections in each other's capitals. Yet relations remained strained. In 2009, a Hizballah cell was uncovered preparing to carry out attacks inside Egypt—to Mubarak, further proof of Iran's imperial designs on the Sunni Arab world. Even stronger evidence resided in the ties between Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood and its Hamas affiliate: an instance of Shiite-Sunni partnership resting on a shared loathing of Israel and disdain for the West. If Ahmadinejad accused Egypt of selling out the Palestinians for the sake of relations with the Zionists, Mubarak blamed Iran for his troubles with Hamas.

And yet, despite all this, toward the end of the Mubarak era Iran had secured Egypt's agreement for the resumption of direct flights, and now, post-Mubarak, two Iranian warships bound for Syria have been allowed to transit the Suez Canal for the first time since the 1979 Iranian revolution. Moreover, in the aftermath of the uprising in Cairo (which the mullahs in Tehran promptly claimed as a reprise of their own), the Muslim Brotherhood has become an essential element in the negotiations between the opposition and the ruling junta; two probable presidential candidates, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Musa and ex-IAEA chief Mohammad el-Baradei, are known for their warm connections with Iran.

Tehran certainly looks forward to "more balanced" relations with Cairo and, most likely, a resumption of full diplomatic ties. Still, a genuine strategic alliance between the two countries would be an unprecedented development. After all, the geostrategic rivalry among Iran, Egypt, and Turkey is a deep-seated historical fact, not easily overcome by a thin veneer of pan-Islamic solidarity.

Besides, the biggest wildcard in the region has yet to be played. If, notwithstanding the mullahs' utter ruthlessness in putting down dissent, today's contagion of popular uprisings should lead to the toppling of Iran's benighted regime, a truly new day will have dawned in the Middle East.

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Daniel Wright on February 24, 2011 at 9:18 am (Reply)
As rioting continues across the region, watch for increasing 'across-the-aisle' alliances between Sunnis and Shiites. Consider the fact that while Iraq's Saddam Hussein was STILL in 'power', Iran was a quieter, lesser player in the region. Not anymore.

Once the US and 'coalition' forces de-throned Hussein to 'liberate' the Iraqis, the power vacuum it created was enormous! Not saying I consider Saddam to have been an honorable or a good leader. No. It's just that while he WAS there, he provided a significant buffer against the power increasingly full-blown in Iran. With Saddam and his henchmen out of the way, though oil-rich and holding democratic elections, a so-called FREE Iraq has degraded to a fraction of its former regional self. I'm not suggesting no benefit has been wrought there. But, the US continues to bear the costly burden of countering this vacuum, contrary to the media's ignoring the topic.

Iran knows this full well and is capitalizing on distracted US military and diplomatic energies, both there and over in Afghanistan. While saying they 'hate' America [trust me] they are grateful that we threw Saddam's regime out of power. Ahmadinijad and his cleric-led nation have enduring designs for the region. Designs which include the elimination of 'the Zionist entity'.

I am simply saying that had we left Hussein confined to himself and managed the [yes, tedious] no-fly zone, and continued the [yes, annoying] demands for weapons inspections, UN sanctions, etc. ... if we had simply maintained the status quo, would Iran be as LARGE and influential as they are today? I think not.

So, while nodding our collective heads in forgiveness for flawed US policies, motivated by early, post-9/11 world-views, remember to thank the greatest country in the world for assisting in the emergence of Hizballah, Islamist riots and heretofore unseen partnerships across boundaries that have divided Shia and Sunni for centuries.

As a consolation prize? If the US had done nothing? The emergent unification of former enemies and the throwing off of despots would STILL have come about. Just not as quickly. You can thank college-educated, internet-saavy, oil-funded world traveling Muslims and globalism for most of it.
Ron Broxted on February 24, 2011 at 11:00 am (Reply)
One wonders what will happen in neighbouring non-Arab nations such as Turkey.
Daniel Wright on February 24, 2011 at 12:09 pm (Reply)
@ Ron ... I think there is a lot of financial/business opportunity and stability in Turkey and I would be fairly surprised if the sort of rebellion we are witnessing in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Jordan, Iran, etc. were to erupt there.

Sure. Turkey has some radical elements, but they also [still] have a mostly secular government, a much more vibrant economy and profitable connectivity with Asia, Europe, the US, even Israel [though strained], and with the rest of the world.

So, in Turkey? The same demographic of riot leaders across the region ... muslim clerics, college-educated, well-traveled, under-35 professionals and the marginalized ... are all there, but they have a better situation than any of these nations that are currently burning.

We'll have to see what the region does on the whole. The next couple of years should be a roller coaster. It is also quite clear that Turkey is increasingly open to neighbors who hate Israel and that, sadly, is likely to increase. Especially as these regimes topple and are replaced by new ones fueled by Islamist ideology fused into college-educated, web/media savvy youngsters in each of these countries who have seen global freedom elsewhere and want it where they live!

The only problem is, once they have this power? Once the USA's cooperative friends/puppets/partners are set aside? What will that mean for tiny Israel? Turkey could be the final straw.
Archie1954 on February 24, 2011 at 2:27 pm (Reply)
The "Jewish" state of Israel? I'm sorry but I didn't know that Israel was a Jewish state. I always thought it was a secular Zionist state. After all it has a huge number of Palestinians living there who are Muslims so how could it be a Jewish state? I don't understand.
Batya on February 24, 2011 at 3:25 pm (Reply)
@Archie1954: What would you call a state that has a Law of Return only for Jews? Greek? You seem to be mistakenly equating "Jewish" with a religion, Judaism. Jews are a people, many of whom choose to live in a secular way, and some of whom are Zionists. One can be a secular or religious Zionist Jew, or a secular or religious non-Zionist Jew, but all of them are Jews living in a Jewish state -- which, nonetheless, does not have an official religion and prints its signs in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. On the other hand, there is no official separation of religion and state in Israel, and certain matters, such as marriage, are overseen by religious Jews.
Daniel Wright on February 24, 2011 at 3:28 pm (Reply)
@ Archie1954 ... excellent point. You are correct. There IS much diversity within Israel. Thanks for pointing it out. With that in mind, I have a question for you. And please, more than one sentence for an answer.

If Israel is, in fact, not 'purely' a Jewish state ... if it is, in fact, plural, with citizens from many religions and backgrounds; a vast pool of ethnicity [which it most definitely IS] ... then why do virtually ALL of the adjacent Arab nations [individual exceptions noted] ... why do they despise Israel and consider the Zionist Entity's existence an enormous regional pariah? Why has there been uniform disdain, refusal to acknowledge her right to exist, repeated terrorist actions, multiple wars which she did not start, [in fact, a permanent state of war exists with more than one], a litany of UN/international condemnations and persistent tensions with her neighbors since 1948? Why? If she is obviously NOT a Jewish state, as you have correctly stated, then, why is there so much global bitterness toward Israel?

What is the dirty little secret? Can you illuminate us?

And, I ask you, if Israel was ... you know ... purely Jewish? Would there be peace? Regional calm? Acceptance? No.

Mark this. There wasn't always an enormous military and security apparatus [IDF/IAF] consuming vast resources, precious time and human lives, you know. There weren't always miles and miles of high concrete walls and observation towers criss-crossing the landscape, you know. There weren't always time-consuming, humiliating and stifling security check points, you know. There is now. Even so, Israel DOES have a large Israeli-Arab community with more rights than ANY of the adjacent countries. They are obviously not Jews ... but, they have an extremely high standard of living.

So ... tell me. What IS the deal? Because clearly ... I don't understand.
Archie1954 on February 24, 2011 at 4:11 pm (Reply)
I have always maintained that the fact that some people who emigrated to Israel were followers of Judaism should not have engendered hatred or animosity because they were Jews. The main thrust of the opposition to Israel as a state is the Zionist goal of confiscating all or most of the land of the Palestinians whose families have lived there for at least two millenia. It is not a religious problem to my mind but a political one. The Zionist state has been a secular goal of certain parties for many decades. The horror of the Nazis became the catalyst that spurred the creation and settlement of Israel by Zionist, not Jewish, immigrants. "Jews" are not a separate race, a small portion of them (Hebrews) are of the same racial charactristics as the Palestinians residing in the Middle East, but most are of Caucasian racial characteristics, the same as we goy. Sorry about that, but I never believed for one instant that Jews were different than the rest of us. I know you may find that offensive, sobeit. Anyway, I don't think for one second that I am arguing against my own position when I state that Jews then are a religion, not a people (race).I simply believe that only some of the immigrants settling in Israel are Jews, the rest are secular people looking for land and a domicile.
Daniel Wright on February 24, 2011 at 7:47 pm (Reply)
@ Archie1954 ... I see ... I think.

So, since you are saying Zionists are not [mainly] Jews [even though they ARE] the only reason their [mostly] Arab neighbors hate them [their neighbors are mostly Arab and yes, mostly Muslim] is because the Zionists want to confiscate land?

THAT is the dirty little secret? Land confiscation?

You are kidding right? Zionists are not Jews? Ridiculous. Hitler wasn't concentrating and eliminating Jews ... how silly of me. He was actually getting rid of Zionists! Of course. I mean. Okay. There may be a handful of Zionists within Israel that are, what Arab? Druze?

Friend, your analysis of Jewish ethnicity is far too simplistic, denies history, is revisionist and more than a little flawed.

To be fair, Jews today do come from a spectrum of ethnic lines, yes. This is due to their being scattered across the world for about 19 centuries in a wide swath of countries. Yes there was intermarriage and conversions. That said, there is genetic evidence for continuity back to the time of the First Century [AD/CE] when the Romans ran most of them off for the long haul. That is a fact of science and history. Jews are a funny bunch. In some cases they are Jews in an ethnic way ... in others, they may convert [Sammy Davis JR.] and be Jewish thereafter. So it is quite complex and yes, Israel is sort of a rescue mission for them. What Jews are is difficult to define. Depends on the criteria one employs. There are many many strains/iterations of modern Israeli Jews ... as BATYA pointed out.

As for Palestinians? Arabs are not the only Palestinians ... no. To be fair, many Israeli Jews consider themselves to be people of Palestine. Many were born there under that name. Many were born before 1948 and statehood when is was under the British mandate and still called Palestine. The Jerusalem Post [a Jewish newspaper always] was originally called the Palestine Post.

So, it is indeed complicated for sure.

The real questions to me are these: [1] WHY that particular small country? and [2] WHY the hatred and rejection of Israel?

[1] That country? Because of the Bible. Period. Whether these guys came from Europe, Asia, Africa, US, Australia ... wherever! They came to THAT land because of the overwhelming Biblical connection to Judea, Samaria, the Negev, Galilee and of course, Jerusalem. Doesn't matter if they were secular Jews or not. Religious or atheist or not. No. They came because that IS their historic homeland. Arguable I know. Good heavens ... the entire world is FULL of arguments for and against ... of course! But, it is the Bible. That is why.

[2] The main reason there is hatred and rejection of Israel is that it was founded by Jews [a people conquered and dismissed by Arab muslims in this region, repeatedly in the past]. Also, Israel is an example of Jewish sovereignty over formerly sovereign Arab lands. This is profoundly unacceptable to Arabs generally, Muslim Arabs specifically. Ask them! An insult of the highest order. Unforgivable. Sure there is tension in a practical way in our time around issues of land, housing, resources, but the root of it is an Arab, Islamic, refusal to acknowledge Jewish sovereignty over ANY land that has ever been conquered and ruled under the sword of Islam. That is the root rejection. Have their been Jews in Palestine over the centuries? Sure. A merchant. A beggar. A cobbler. A poor fisherman or two. A few here or there. But, NOT a sovereign nation! NO! And today? There are hundreds of modern political reasons, across a wide range of subjects that are leveraged by many many critics of Israel as to why this tiny [primarily] Jewish homeland is evil, unjust and should not be. But the root? Arabs and muslims would shout, "PALESTINE IS WAQF LAND, FOREVER!" That is the bottom line and that absolute and irreconcilable element is at the core of why Israel's neighbors, the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, Hizballah, etc. will never ever ever compromise on the land of Palestine! Violent jihad [if that is what it takes] will rid the land of those pesky Jews! Regardless of what negotiators sign or say or agree to ... it is all temporary and artificial. Abbas and his team may deny it, but in practice, this IS the strategy. There is ONLY one objective. With the rest of the Jew-hating world at their backs, they will NEVER rest until they have all of Palestine back. No Israel! Never. No Zionist Entity. They will never ever ever compromise it.

But don't worry. Israel isn't really a Jewish nation. So we can all relax.
Emmon Clalrke on February 24, 2011 at 10:08 pm (Reply)
What a wonderful discourse. Thanks for all this info in one place and one time.


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