Strange Bedfellows

By Elliot Jager
Thursday, February 24, 2011

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.

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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