President Mohamed Morsi makes history tomorrow, August 30, with a visit to Iran to attend the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) meetings — the first diplomatic visit for an Egyptian head of state since the Iranian revolution in 1979.
Since his election, the president has been expected to improve ties with Iran as planned in his electoral platform but official statements from his office deny such attempts. Days ahead of his visit, Morsi’s spokesperson Yasser Ali told the press that there weren’t any plans to restore diplomatic ties between the countries, calling the president’s visit to the summit “protocol.”
"The matter [of restoring diplomatic ties] is out of the question at this stage," said Ali to As-Sharq al-Awsat.
Egypt, the current chair of NAM, is to hand over the rotating three-year chairmanship to Iran in the meeting, held in the Iranian capital Tehran. The movement was founded during the Cold War to advocate the causes of the developing world amid tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States.
Reports have also said that Morsi would hold talks with the Iranian president, senior officials and intellectuals to discuss economic, scientific and cultural cooperation between the two countries.
The Egyptian president met earlier this month with Iran’s vice president Hamid Baqaei in Cairo, where Baqaei formally invited Morsi to the NAM summit. "We look forward to Egypt’s participation as a founding member of the movement,” the Middle East News Agency (MENA) quoted Baqaei saying.
The summit, running August 26–31, is discussing the Syrian crisis as well as Iran’s nuclear program. In mid-August, Morsi had suggested at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation Summit that Iran, a strong ally of Syrian president Bashar El Assad, cooperates with Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia to solve the Syrian crisis. His plans to visit Tehran was announced a few days later.
The cynics, pessimists and enthusiasts
The announcement sparked a range of feedback, with some dismissing the move as non-significant, to opposition from the West to support and enthusiasm over restoring a long-lost friendship.
Although it might be too early to predict just how much relations will change under Morsi, or assess the exact impact of this change, a restoration of diplomatic ties between the two countries would most likely cause tension in Egypt’s relations with the US and Israel.
The US and its allies, claiming that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, have imposed sanctions on the country’s banking and oil exports. Israel has made no secret of the fact it will consider military options if diplomacy and economic pressures fail to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions. Iran insists that its nuclear program is for non-military purposes, but negotiations to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect Iran's facilities have not been successful.
US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters on August 20 that “We frankly don’t think that Iran is deserving of these high-level presences that are going there,” referring to high-ranking officials from the countries attending the NAM summit. “We would hope and expect that those who choose to go will take the opportunity of any meetings that they have with Iran's leaders to press them to come back into compliance," she added.
In an Los Angeles Times opinion piece , David Schenker, director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and Christina Lin, a fellow at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, argue that a rapprochement with Iran is “the most obvious of Morsi’s foreign policy pivots.” The article, titled Egypt’s outreach to China and Iran is troubling for U.S. policies, adds “Given the heightened tension over Iran's nuclear program, the timing of the Morsi visit seems deliberately provocative.”
Elijah Zarwan, an expert on Egypt at the European Council on Foreign Relations, was quoted by the BBC news in an article titled Egypt and Iran: Old enemies become new friends? saying that normalization of relations between the two countries will take more time. He calls Morsi’s visit a “symbolically important step, but perhaps not as important as the alarmists suggest.” He also noted that since Egypt is currently heading the NAM, Morsi’s attendance is important as the country takes the movement seriously.
"[Morsi] would have to carefully weigh any steps toward better relations against resistance from within the Egyptian state, and from Egypt's allies in the Gulf and further afield," Zarwan told BBC.
The prospect of restoring relations with Iran was welcomed by Sabry Khalaf, a member of the Shura council and Muslim Brotherhood member, who told the local daily Egypt Independent that restoring relations between Egypt and Iran was an excellent step. Khalaf blamed the Mubarak regime for interrupting relations between Egypt and Arab and Islamic countries.
But even the Brotherhood is not united on that front; Brotherhood spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan condemned any attempt to restore ties with Iran due to their stances on the Syrian issue. He told local media that the president’s visit is an attempt to pressure Iran to stop supporting the regime of Bashar Al Assad.
“We were looking forward to enhancing our cooperation with Iran, but with the current Iranian stance, it is impossible. Syrian blood is not cheap,” Ghozlan told the Daily News Egypt .
Thirty years of strife on the brink of change
Relations between the two nations have been strained for the 30 years, although they have maintained loose diplomatic ties with visits from low-ranking officials.
Iran officially cut all ties with Egypt in 1979 in response to the 1978 Camp David Accords , in which Egypt acknowledged the state of Israel, and Egypt’s subsequent support for Iraq in the war against Iran. The relationship was put under even more stress after Iran named a street after Khaled Islambouli, President Anwar El Sadat’s assassin.
During the Mubarak era, the predominately Shia Iran was seen as a regional rival to Sunni-majority countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia and a threat to regional stability via its close allies Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas.
Since Morsi’s election, however, politicians and the public have been expecting a move to improve ties with Iran, once a strong ally of Egypt. The first wife of the last Shah of Iran was the sister of Egyptian King Farouk, and the deposed Shah was buried in Cairo's Rifai Mosque after his death.
The Associated Press (AP) quoted former Egyptian foreign minister Nabil El Araby, current head the Arab League, delivering a positive message last July saying, "Iran is not an enemy."
Since former President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, there have been signs of a thaw between Cairo and Tehran. This year Iran invited 50 Egyptian university professors to a book fair and later the families of the revolution’s martyrs to honor their loved ones’ sacrifices. In May, Egypt allowed a once-closed Shia shrine to reopen for worshippers. et