- Associated Press - Thursday, July 28, 2011

CAIRO One of Egypt’s ruling generals took great pains this week to reassure his American audience: The military-led caretaker government has no intention of mending ties with Iran, a longtime foe and regional rival.

But once an elected government takes over from Egypt’s interim rulers in coming months, it would have to be responsive to public opinion, Maj. Gen. Mohammed al-Assar said in a speech to a think tank in Washington, suggesting that a different course is then possible.

Iran has been strongly courting Egypt since the February fall of President Hosni Mubarak, seeking to break its isolation and extend its influence in the Middle East.

The prospect has alarmed Egypt’s allies - particularly Saudi Arabia and the Arab countries of the Gulf, as well as Israel, all of which fear increasing Iranian power in the Middle East.


With its own suspicions of Iran and wary of alienating its allies, Egypt is unlikely to run into an embrace with Iran.

But how much it does improve ties will be a major indicator of how far its future government will take a more independent foreign policy after decades under Mr. Mubarak, who stuck closely to the United States’ line in the region.

For most Egyptians, the top priority is to back off from the close cooperation that the Mubarak regime had with Israel on economic and security issues.

But it also could mean an easing of Mr. Mubarak’s staunchly anti-Iran stance. One of the leading contenders for the Egyptian presidency, former Arab League chief Amr Moussa, argues that Egypt would gain from peaceful or less tense relations with Iran.

Any warming would mark a shift in the political map of the region, which has sharply split between Iran’s sphere of influence, including Syria and the Islamic militias of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, and a U.S.-backed camp led by Saudi Arabia, Gulf nations and Mr. Mubarak’s Egypt.

Just two weeks after Mr. Mubarak’s fall, Iran tested the new Egypt, asking to send two warships through the Egyptian-controlled Suez Canal. Egypt granted the request, a first since 1979, saying it was bound by canal rules of free passage.

A month later, Egypt’s new foreign minister, Nabil Elaraby, declared that “Iran is not an enemy” and that Egypt would seek to open a new page with every country in the world, including Iran.