The Supreme Leader of Iran recently announced his support for normalizing relations with Egypt. Iranian media is also promoting the Sultan of Oman’s recent visit to Tehran as a possible attempt at mediation. Informed sources have told Al-Arabiya that the two countries have agreed to form a joint committee to coordinate the restoration of relations.
Tehran and Cairo have had a rugged relationship since the 1979 Revolution in Iran. Initially, the fallout resulted from strictly political grievances because Egypt ceased hostilities with Israel following the Camp David Accords, which was anathema to the intensely anti-Israeli Islamists in Iran. A little later, President Sadat granted asylum to the former Shah of Iran and refused to extradite him to the revolutionary regime in Tehran.
Although these two early events cast a long shadow over the Iranian-Egyptian relationship, it is indeed the ideological affinity and cooperation between the Islamist regime in Iran and its counterpart in Egypt, namely the Muslim Brotherhood, which has posed an existential threat to whatever government has been in power in Cairo since the mid-twentieth century that keep the relationship between the two countries frigid.
Similarities between the Khomeinist Movement and the Muslim Brotherhood
The Muslim Brotherhood ideology inspired the Khomeinist movement in Iran, and Sayyid Qutb, one of the most influential Brotherhood theorists, has always been popular among Iranian Islamists. Although Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, did not openly acknowledge the Brotherhood’s influence, it is true that the current Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has translated Qutb’s work into Farsi. According to Mohsen Kadivar, a prominent Iranian theologist, Qutb is Khamenei’s favorite writer.
The Muslim Brotherhood and the Khomeinist version of Islamism entertain an apocalyptic vision of the world. They are invested in the totalitarian ideology of Islamism, which holds that Islam is a total way of life that must supplant all other ways of life, including liberal democracy. The Islamic Republic and the Muslim Brotherhood detest and disregard the Westphalian order that is the basis of modern international law and seek to establish a pan-Islamic superstate through the conquest of the Middle East and, eventually, the rest of the world. They both share anti-Western, anti-Israeli, and anti-GCC sentiments.
The Iranian Islamists learned a lot from their Sunni brethren early on. They followed the Brotherhood’s model of infiltrating the West’s political, cultural, and academic institutions and guiding public opinion to legitimize their positions and gain leverage in the Middle East. In the U.S., the Shiite Student Islamic Association was founded as a splinter cell of the Brotherhood’s Muslim Students’ Association in North America in the 1960s.
The Islamic Center of Hamburg, the foremost Shiite institute of influence in the West at the time, closely followed in the Brotherhood’s footsteps when it implemented a sophisticated program of proselytization and engagement with European public intellectuals. That approach can still be seen in the lobbying practices of the institutions affiliated with the Iranian regime in the West.
The Muslim Brotherhood also taught the Iranian revolutionaries how to take up arms. During the 1960s and 1970s, many Iranian Islamists and radical Leftists were trained in guerrilla camps in Egypt and Syria under the auspices of Brotherhood-sympathetic army officers. They then relocated to Lebanon to establish the radical Shiite Amal Movement, the precursor of Hezbollah, to galvanize the Lebanese population against Israel and the West. Those same battle-hardened Iranian guerrillas would later topple the regime of the Shah and replace it with an Islamist regime in Iran.
Iranian-Egyptian Relations During Morsi’s Presidency
After the Islamic Revolution and during the Iran-Iraq War, the Muslim Brotherhood actively aided the Iranian regime in evading international sanctions. As Youssef Nada, the financier known as the Brotherhood’s “foreign minister,” admitted in his account Inside the Muslim Brotherhood (2012), the Brotherhood helped Iran with imports of steel and grain during the war. However, in his memoirs, Ebrahim Yazdi claims that the Geneva-based Brotherhood-affiliated Dar Al-Mal Al-Islami Trust was instrumental in procuring game-changing military resources, including Phantom parts, for the Iranian regime throughout the war.
In return, the Muslim Brotherhood has always been welcome in Iran. As Nada mentions in his memoirs, the Brotherhood and the Iranian regime maintained friendly relations throughout the Mubarak era. When Mubarak was removed from power, and Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood became the Egyptian president in 2012, the ayatollahs in Tehran jumped for joy. Characterizing the Brotherhood’s ascent to power as an “Islamic awakening,” they enthusiastically reached out to the Morsi government. They sought to normalize relations with Egypt after three decades of a diplomatic freeze.
Morsi went to Tehran in August 2012 to attend a summit of the Non-Aligned Movement. President Ahmadinejad reciprocated by attending a summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Cairo in February 2013. Counting on the Brotherhood’s anti-Israel agenda and rhetoric, Tehran hoped a new front could be opened against Israel in the south. But as Morsi was cautiously trying to walk a fine line between Iran and the Arab world and wanted to keep his options open for the future, the ayatollahs’ wishes did not fully materialize.
Continued Cooperation and Regional Implications
Nevertheless, during Morsi’s presidency, Quds Force operatives exponentially increased activities in Egypt and, taking advantage of the post-revolution turmoil, uninhibitedly conveyed arms to Hamas and the Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip through the Sinai.
Tehran later strongly opposed Morsi’s ouster. The Iranian regime’s media adopted a one-directional reporting of the unfolding events in Egypt that sought to validate the Muslim Brotherhood’s narrative. During his trial after his dismissal, Morsi and 35 other prominent Muslim Brotherhood members were accused, among other things, of passing state secrets to the Iranian regime as well as collaborating with the Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah, and Hamas with the intention of committing terrorist acts in Egypt in the period between 2005 and 2013. According to leaked Iranian documents, Tehran and the Brotherhood continued to cooperate long after Morsi’s ouster with an anti-Saudi agenda focused on the civil war in Yemen.
In desperately trying to normalize its relations with the Arab world, Iran’s ultimate goal is to sabotage the American-initiated Abraham Accords and isolate Israel. Normalization efforts towards Egypt follow the same logic. Cairo’s kind of response, in turn, will be contingent upon how much power the U.S. is perceived to wield in the Middle East. If Washington is willing to flex muscle and exert influence in the region, Egypt will likely normalize with Iran while keeping the longstanding peace with Israel. However, if American influence keeps shrinking and China and Russia become the primary powerbrokers in the Middle East, Cairo might cave in to Tehran’s pressure and grant the Revolutionary Guards and their proxies the kind of freedom of action against Israel that they only briefly enjoyed during the reign of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.