- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 17, 2012

CAIRO — Iran once saw the Arab Spring uprisings as a prime opportunity, hoping it would open the door to spread its influence in countries where autocratic leaders long shunned Tehran’s ruling clerics.

But it is finding the new order no more welcoming. Egypt is a prime example.

Egypt has sporadically looked friendlier toward Iran since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak 16 months ago, and the rise of the Islamists here fueled the expectations of Tehran’s clerical regime that it could make inroads.

Instead, it has been met with the deep mistrust felt by many in mainly Sunni Muslim Egypt toward non-Arab, Shiite-dominated Iran, as well as Cairo’s reluctance to sacrifice good relations with Iran’s rivals — the United States and the oil-rich Arab nations of the Gulf.

In a sign of the mistrust, Egyptian security and religious authorities have raised an alarm in recent weeks that Iran is trying to promote Shiism in the country.

Iran must realize that if it wants good relations with an Egypt that will soon regain its strength, it must bear in mind that Egypt holds high the banner of the Sunni faith,” said Mohammed el-Sagheer, a lawmaker from the hard-line Gamaa Islamiya.

“Spreading Shiism in Egypt is not an issue of sectarian conflict. It is a question of national security,” he said.

Iran also has invited families of nearly 900 protesters killed during last year’s uprising to honor them in Tehran, but most relatives declined the offer. Only a group of 27 agreed to make the trip. They flew to Iran last week.

Arab world order

In a wider context, the new order in the Arab world is not going Iran’s way.

“Arab Spring revolts have been a disaster for Iran,” said Michael W. Hanna, a Middle East analyst from New York’s Century Foundation. “It wants to ride those revolts as an extension of its own revolution back in 1979, but it is not happening.”

Instead, Iran has been losing its allure as an alternative model to authoritarian Arab regimes that fell victim to popular uprisings from Tunisia to Yemen.

Ominously for Iran, it could face the fall of its top Arab ally, the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad, and its replacement by Sunni rule.

The Assad dynasty — which belongs to the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiism — has maintained close ties with Tehran for more than 30 years. Now Mr. Assad is struggling to contain an uprising dominated by Syria’s Sunni majority.

The fall of Mr. Assad, who succeeded his father in 2000, almost certainly would weaken the terrorist group Hezbollah, Iran’s chief ally in Lebanon and a sworn enemy of Israel.

Relations between Cairo and Tehran were tense throughout the 29-year rule of Mubarak, whose regime accused Iran of supporting homegrown terrorist Islamist groups.

Egypt traditionally sees itself as the guardian of Islam’s dominant Sunni branch and as a protector of Arab culture against foreign influence, including that of Persian Iran.

Relations, however, appeared to be heading for a major breakthrough after Mubarak’s ouster on Feb. 11, 2011, with Cairo approving an Iranian request for two naval ships to transit the Suez Canal on their way to Syria. The two vessels sailed through the canal in late February 2011, the first ones to do so since the Islamic Revolution.

Nabil Elarabi, Egyptian foreign minister at the time, declared a month later that Iran was no longer an “enemy state.”

Iranians seized on that comment to express their wish for closer relations with Egypt.

U.S., Saudi worries

The signs of a rapprochement worried the United States and Saudi Arabia, allied nations whose largesse and good will have for decades been at the heart of Egypt’s foreign policy goals.

Many Iranian clerics and top officials described Arab Spring uprisings as indications that “an Islamic Middle East is taking shape” and that Egypt’s own revolt was a replay of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, which toppled a pro-Western monarch and brought Islamists to power.

But even as Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood and others have gained stronger political roles in Egypt with their domination of parliament, they have proved little more sympathetic to Iran. Egypt’s military rulers — all veterans of the Mubarak era and close friends of the U.S. military establishment — show little sign of changing their traditional wariness of Tehran.

Last month, Egyptian security forces raided the Cairo offices of Iran’s Arabic-language state television channel, Al-Alam, seizing equipment and closing it down. Police said the station did not have a license. A Cairo-based Iranian diplomat was detained and expelled in May 2011 on suspicion that he tried to set up spy rings in Egypt and the Gulf countries.

Besides the Sunni-Shiite divide, there are key strategic issues as well.

Egypt is in dire need of financial help from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab nations where relations with Tehran are fraught with tensions over Iran’s disputed nuclear program, its perceived support for the majority Shiites in Sunni-ruled Bahrain and occupation of three Gulf islands claimed by the United Arab Emirates.

Egypt is also the recipient of some $1.5 billion in annual U.S. military and economic aid and is dependent on Washington’s support to secure loans from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Egypt and Iran “are competitors and rivals in the region,” said Middle East analyst Samer S. Shehata of Georgetown University. “The natural state of affairs is not for Iran and Egypt to be allies. Egypt’s strategic interests are different from Iran‘s.”

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