Over the past half-decade, a new political order has emerged in the Middle East. The recent normalization of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the return of Bashar al-Assad’s Syria to the Arab League, and the improving relations between Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Turkey, and Egypt all indicate a new era of regional alignment, with positive consequences for the security and economy of the Middle East.
Amid this broader wave of good relations, news has emerged of a potential thaw between Egypt and Iran, long at odds over a set of historical grievances dating back to the days of the Shah. The two nations are reportedly exploring the possibility of a meeting between Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, although this meeting has yet to occur. Promising relations, and the possible opening of embassies in the two countries for the first time since 1979, marks another positive step for diplomacy after the resumption of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia a few weeks ago. The possible normalization of relations between Tehran and Cairo will have far-reaching effects across the Gulf, including in both nations’ relationships with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states.
Causes of Conflict
The four-decade conflict between Iran and Egypt was influenced by two factors: the first political, the second geopolitical. Although conventional political and ideological differences have divided Egypt and Iran since 1979, geopolitics have kept the two nations separate to the present day.
Egypt’s relationship with Iran was tense even before the arrival of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979. The Shah of Iran was firmly aligned with the West during the Cold War and considered the region’s foremost protector of Western interests. The Shah also enjoyed close relations with Arab monarchs—most notably Farouk of Egypt, whose sister he married in 1939—and Egyptian-Iranian relations were severely strained after Farouk was overthrown by the “Free Officers” in 1952. The rise to power of Gamal Abdel Nasser, a socialist leader with anti-monarchist views and close ties to the Soviet Union, further strained ties. However, relations improved during the 1970s under the leadership of Anwar Al-Sadat, who improved Egypt’s relations with the West, made peace with Israel, and sought a more moderate course on foreign affairs. In 1979, when the Shah fled Iran, he was warmly welcomed by Sadat where he lived until his death in 1980.
The late Shah was buried in the Al-Rifa’i Mosque, next to his brother-in-law King Farouk, after a state funeral—enraging the new government of Iran. After President Sadat was assassinated by an Islamist officer in 1981, Iran’s revolutionaries—who had earlier vilified Sadat for his signing of the Camp David Accords—were happy to name a street in Tehran in the assassin’s honor.
Ideological differences between Cairo and Tehran soon gave way to geopolitical ones. After the 1979 revolution, Iran sought to export religious fervor throughout the Arab world, sparking similar movements in Egypt and the Gulf Arab states. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Egypt was seriously destabilized by a campaign of Islamist violence that the Iranian Revolution had helped to inspire. Iran also began to provide extensive support for Palestinian movements; soon after Hamas gained power in the Gaza Strip in 2007, Iran emerged as its largest foreign backer, providing military and financial aid. Hamas has caused the Egyptian government no shortage of headaches over the past two decades, and Cairo clearly feels threatened by Iran’s presence in Gaza.
In spite of these hurdles, after four decades, the two countries appear willing to reconcile with each other. While both countries remain fundamentally at odds over ideology and political systems, they share major internal socio-economic problems, leading them to reduce their tensions and discuss the mutual benefits that could be provided by a better relationship.
Impact on the GCC
The normalization of Iran and Egypt will have a direct effect on the security of the GCC countries. The Persian Gulf region needs de-escalation and stability of security more than anything at this time. By pursuing its ambitious Vision 2030 program, Saudi Arabia seeks to attract foreign investment and ensure long-term economic stability. At the same time, Riyadh seeks to address insecurity and threats to regional stability, such as the missile attack on the Abqaiq oil facilities in 2019. The UAE is also looking to secure maritime trade and the safe and free passage of shipping in the waters around its country.
After the coming to power of President Raisi, Iran seeks to pursue its dual “Looking East” and “Neighborhood” policies, designed to improve its relations with its neighbors while decreasing its reliance on the United States and the West. Iran is currently facing dire economic conditions, inflation of around 60%, and extreme social instability caused by ongoing anti-government protests. Iran also faces a succession challenge: its octogenarian supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, has no clear successor, and is rumored to have cancer, underscoring the importance of creating the conditions for a smooth and orderly transition of power—conditions that include both internal unity and good relations with Iran’s neighbors.
As part of its foreign affairs strategy, Iran also seeks to repair its image around the world, casting itself as a peaceful, diplomacy-minded nation rather than a regional troublemaker. For this reason, it is completing a de-escalation strategy with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt. Reconciliation between Iran and Egypt complements this strategy, and good relations with Egypt could improve Tehran’s prospects elsewhere in the region, due to Egypt’s influence in the Arab world.
The recent Saudi-Iran rapprochement is likely to have far-reaching consequences for the Gulf region—including for Egypt, which plays a major role in regional commerce due to its large population, agricultural and industrial base, and ownership of the Suez Canal. In an interview with Egyptian broadcaster Nashat Al-Daihi, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry described the reconciliation of Iran and Saudi Arabia as a turning point in regional developments, saying that Egypt would “take steps based on the evaluation of these developments.” Five years ago, President El-Sisi warned in November 2018 that he would not hesitate to intervene militarily with the Egyptian army if the security of the GCC states was disrupted by Iran.
The situation in the Gaza Strip is another factor that will be raised in the possible reconciliation between Iran and Egypt. Tehran has good relations with both Hamas and “Islamic Jihad,” the two main militant movements in the Gaza Strip. Under El-Sisi, Egypt has kept both groups at arm’s length and has expressed concerns about the close contact between Hamas and Iranian officials. Cairo regards itself as the top mediator of peace in the region, and has played a key role in several recent ceasefires, including the one that ended the week-long clashes between Israel and Islamic Jihad in May. In order to achieve reconciliation with Egypt, Tehran will likely need to give guarantees to Cairo that it will support its role in this regard.
What the Gulf Thinks
The Gaza Strip, Hamas, and the security of this region are also important for the GCC states. Saudi Arabia hosted a delegation from Hamas in April for the first time since 2015. Riyadh has done this to show its mediation and soft power and to be active in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. During this trip, senior Hamas official Mousa Abu Marzouk announced the independence of Hamas from any regional coalition, declaring that the organization “is not a part of any military or political axis…and there is not a relationship with any party at the expense of another party.” Saudi-funded Asharq Al-Awsat surmised that Marzouk’s comments amounted to a rebuke of Hamas’ Gaza chief, Yahya Al-Sinwar, who recently positioned the movement in an Iran-led axis that includes Hezbollah in Lebanon, Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
The importance of the Gaza Strip is particularly paramount for Qatar, which has long framed itself as the foremost GCC supporter of the Palestinian cause. Both Egypt and Qatar have repeatedly played a major role in negotiations between Hamas and Israel, and Doha has provided significant financial aid to the Gaza Strip. Qatar’s relations with Hamas began after it won the Gaza parliamentary elections in 2006, and in 2011, when Hamas decided to leave Syria, Qatar agreed to let Khaled Meshaal, the head of its political bureau, open its main office in Doha. On 10 February 2019, Israeli newspaper Haaretz revealed that Qatar transferred more than $1.1 billion to Gaza between 2012 and 2018, with Israel’s endorsement.
Iran-Egypt relations have other advantages for the GCC states. A major bonus from a Cairo-Tehran rapprochement would be an increase in security in the Red Sea, which Iran could accomplish by pressuring the Houthis to cease aggressive activity near the Bab el-Mandeb at its southern terminus. The GCC nations and Egypt previously participated in the “2+6 Persian Gulf Security Plan” in 1991. However, modern GCC-Egypt relations should be observed in the light of the ongoing rapprochement, as well as in connection to both sides’ relations elsewhere in the Middle East—including with both Israel, which has played an increasing security role, and with Iran.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.