- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Diplomats yesterday cautioned against excessive alarm over a series of visits to Cairo by senior Iranian officials, saying Tehran’s bid to end three decades of estrangement is unlikely to yield an early restoration of formal relations.

Officials said the Egyptian government recognizes that Iran is a major player in the Middle East and is interested in “exploring” normalization — a step that would undercut U.S. efforts to isolate Iran.

But Iranian pronouncements that the two most powerful Muslim countries are “on the verge” of re-establishing diplomatic relations are exaggerated, the diplomats and analysts said.

Several high-level Iranian officials have visited Cairo in recent weeks, beginning with National Security Council chief Ali Larijani, followed by Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and parliament Speaker Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel last week.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak spoke with his Iranian counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, by telephone last month — the first such contact since ties were cut in 1979 after Egypt’s peace agreement with Israel.

Relations worsened after Mr. Mubarak’s predecessor, Anwar Sadat, granted refuge to the deposed Shah of Iran. In turn, a street in Tehran was named after Khaled el-Islambouli, the Egyptian fundamentalist leader who assassinated Mr. Sadat in 1981.

“The two countries will soon take steps to further develop mutual confidence so that Egyptian elites could communicate with their Iranian counterparts more easily,” Mr. Haddad-Adel was quoted as saying by Iranian press reports.

“There has merely remained some insignificant issues that could be solved, but a solution of which requires time, and we will try to move in this direction,” he said.

Egyptian officials, however, said the outstanding issues are far from “insignificant,” and that the recent contacts are more of an attempt to resolve those matters, many of which have to do with security, than to fully normalize relations.

Barbara Slavin, senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and author of a recent book on U.S.-Iran relations, “Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies,” said it is in the interest of both Iran and Egypt “to have this show of warming ties.”

“This is way for the Egyptians to remind the United States that it can’t take Egypt for granted, while broadening their options and hedging their bets as they see Iranian influence rise in the region,” she said.

For Iran, the prospect of normal ties with Egypt helps it to counter U.S. efforts to rally the region’s Sunni powers into a loose alliance against Tehran, while enhancing Iran’s self-image as a regional superpower.

Mr. Haddad-Adel said that “there is no doubt that the U.S. is opposed” to better Egypt-Iran ties.

In Washington, the State Department said it was up to the two countries to decide “what sort of relationship they have and whether that involves diplomatic relations.”

“We are confident that the Egyptian government, however, will relay to the Iranian government in any of these meetings or interactions what the international community has been saying: Play a positive role in the world,” said department spokesman Sean McCormack.

Israel is especially worried about Iran’s courting of other countries in the region, diplomats said. Egypt is the only Arab state other than Jordan that has diplomatic relations with Israel, and an Egypt-Iran friendship would threaten that relationship.

Abraham Rabinovich reported from Jerusalem.

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