The Big Flirt: Egypt and Iran in the Spotlight

ByNathan Lean

It was a headline taken straight from the mouths of those who warned that the revolution would lead to trouble. “Egyptians Court U.S. Foes,” read the Wall Street Journal, accompanied by a photo of Iran’s hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. After three decades of frosty relations, it appeared that Egypt’s new government had signaled a desire for renewed romance with Iran — a diplomatic make-up after a nasty political break-up.

We now must wonder what kind of Iran-Egypt relationship will appear.

Egypt’s embattled former president, Hosni Mubarak, warned that his departure would lead to chaos. Others reasoned that Islamic extremists would fill the power vacuum. When recent news broke of flirtations between Cairo and Tehran, it appeared that they were right.

But this latest reconciliation was hardly sealed with a kiss, much less a revolution. Egypt and Iran have engaged in this coy sweet talk for years, showing signs of rekindled relations only to be followed by sobering tough-talk and denial.

In 2004, after renaming a Tehran street that once bore the name of the assassin of former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, it appeared that Egypt and Iran were on track for a friendlier future. The decision by the Tehran City Council patched up a wound that had long created a rift between the two nations and displayed a willingness on the part of Iran to engage in better relations with its Arab state neighbors.

In 2006, similar headlines captured the world’s attention after a high-level Iranian official, Ali Larijani, the current chairman of Parliament and former head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, visited Cairo. “My being here is proof of our respect for Egypt's role, and this respect is mutual," Larijani said. "We hope that these issues [stalled relations] are solved in due time."

Then, just one year later in 2007, former Egyptian Foreign Minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, met with his Iranian counterpart, Manouchehr Mottaki to talk about the possibility of opening embassies in Tehran and Cairo — the very idea that recently came to pass with the announcement (and then retraction) of Iran’s first ambassador to Egypt since 1979.

Perhaps the famed American lyricist Ira Gershwin’s “I Can’t Get Started (With You)” best describes this troubled tale of two nations that just can’t seem to work it out.

Despite the hoopla and speculation that surround talks of closer ties between Egypt and Iran, the latest chatter does not yet have the traction to fully pan out. With Mubarak out of the picture, Egypt may be freer to flex its political muscles but that does not mean that the largest Arab state can thrive without a strong American alliance, one that will likely fracture should Cairo forge a new path with Tehran. Additionally, such a move would force Egypt to cut ties with key regional allies, ending diplomatic dependency on Saudi Arabia (Iran’s foe) in particular. Moreover, the very Egyptians whose historic uprising ousted 30 years of iron-fisted rule would be pressed to reconcile between secular nationalism and Islamism. The parliamentary elections in September will surely provide clues about Egypt’s next step. But for now, Cairo’s fledgling government, still reeling from the shock of revolution, can’t afford to take such a costly risk.

In part, Egypt’s Armed Forces Supreme Council is looking for ways to express its political legitimacy. While Mubarak was restricted by $1.3 billion per year in American aid, Egypt’s new leaders are asserting their independence and testing the waters of political leverage in ways Mubarak could not. Iran, of course, is happy to oblige; unnerving Israel and the U.S. has long been a part of the Islamic Republic’s strategy.

Whatever the political theater that plays out over the coming days and weeks, this is just another saga in a long tale of “love that never was.” And as before, just as quickly as the headlines appear, so too do they disappear: late Wednesday, the director for Iranian interests in Cairo announced that no decisions have been made in promoting Egyptian-Iranian relations.