Egypt and Iran joined forces in mid-April at the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) meeting in Cape Town, South Africa, to propose the adoption of a pro-Palestinian statement, Iranian news agencies report. The proposal held no authority, and the IPU is not an organization that commands even a modicum of international respect. But, when Egypt and Iran work together in any capacity, there is cause for concern.
The acrimony between Iran and Egypt stretches far beyond the much-publicized Shiite-Sunni tensions. After the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the mullahs of Tehran, then led by Ayatollah Khomeini, renounced all ties with Egypt when Cairo provided asylum to the deposed Iranian Shah, Mohamed Reza Pahlavi. Ties worsened further after Egypt inked a peace deal with the state of Israel.
Relations worsened further still with the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980, as Egypt backed its Sunni brothers in Iraq. In response, after the 1981 assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, Iran celebrated the occasion with a four-story mural on a large building in the Iranian capital that lionized Khaled Islambouli, the Islamic extremist who mowed down Sadat in cold blood with a hail of machine gun bullets.
Cairo and Tehran remained at odds for the next 30 years. Tehran, the rogue state, continued to test the patience of Washington policy makers, while Egypt, a valuable U.S. ally, reaped a multibillion dollar windfall in foreign aid for merely maintaining a frigid peace with Israel. Indeed, Egypt and Iran appeared to hold diametrically opposed positions on U.S. policy in the Middle East.
The rift between the two countries came into sharp relief amidst the crisis surrounding the ongoing violence in post-Saddam Iraq. Sunni Egypt grew alarmed over Iran’s influence among Iraq’s radical Shiites, and the potential for that influence to spread through the “Shiite Crescent” from Iran to Lebanon. President Husni Mubarak’s regime grew even more alarmed over Iran’s influence in Palestinian affairs. Iran, by sponsoring the violent 2006 coup that brought Hamas to power in Gaza, brought instability to Egypt’s doorstep.
Responding to reports of Hamas operatives training at military camps run by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Egypt worked quietly in 2006 and 2007 to bolster Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction. Reports emerged that Cairo began training at least one Fatah battalion to be stationed in the Gaza Strip.
In late 2007, though, the Iran-Egypt dynamic shifted dramatically. As Israel and the U.S. — with the backing of the international community — moved to isolate Hamas in Gaza, representatives from Cairo and Iran began to meet frequently.
Even as Iran continued to supply weapons to Hamas through subterranean tunnels it helped build and finance between the Sinai Peninsula and southern Gaza, the mullahs publicly implored the Arab world to ease the isolation of Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The Egyptian trade minister visited Iran on an official visit, and the speaker of the Iranian parliament, the Majles, came to Egypt for high-level talks.
Did Iran effectively lobby Egypt? Questions arise over the way in which the Mubarak regime allowed Palestinians to stream into the Sinai Peninsula after the Hamas breach of the Gaza-Egypt border in late January 2008. According to the Egyptian daily al-Masry al-Youm, for 12 days the Egyptians allowed Palestinians to cross the border freely and without documentation, effectively ending the siege of Gaza. Given the chaos, it would have been possible for these individuals to smuggle additional weaponry across the border into Gaza for a terrorist attack.
It quickly became clear that the fate of Hamas, Iran’s new favorite client, was in Egypt’s hands. The mullahs reached out to Cairo through the Iranian Foreign Ministry, which offered Egypt “assistance” and funds to help “control” the border.
Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — reviled in Israel for threatening to wipe the Jewish state “off the map” — soon made a direct call to Husni Mubarak, offering to restore ties between the two countries, while pleading for aid to Hamas. “The time is ripe for assisting the Palestinians to survive this intolerable situation,” Ahmadinejad reported told his Egyptian counterpart.
Ali Asghar Mohammadi, a high-ranking Iranian diplomat, also visited Cairo to discuss the world sanctions isolating Hamas in Gaza. Iran’s news agency and television confirmed that discussions were ongoing, publicly signaling that ties could be renewed.
When Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s top spy, made plans to visit Israel in February 2008, it was clear that he held the key to enforcing sanctions against Hamas or allowing it to arm. Iran has since made a concerted effort to influence Egypt policy on how to police its crucial seven-mile border separating Egypt from Gaza. Indeed, Iran knows that Egypt will determine whether or not Hamas stocks up on arms for its next Iran-sponsored conflict with Israel.
According to recent news reports, Mubarak is still wary of Iran’s growing influence in the region. Moreover, Egyptians widely believe that the enmity between the two countries is too entrenched to overcome. Nonetheless, there is cause for concern. Iran continues to lobby Egypt on behalf of Hamas.
– Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism analyst for the U.S. Treasury Department, is director of policy for the Jewish Policy Center and author of the forthcoming Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine.