Tensions between Iran and Egypt began again after the Islamic Revolution, when the exiled Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was welcomed by former Egyptian President Mohammad Anwar Sadat, despite the demands of the revolutionaries. After that, the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel widened the gap between Cairo and Tehran. Now, after many years, there are still reasons that make the relations between Egypt and Iran always an important issue for scientific, research, and political centers and beyond. The issue of reviving relations between Iran and Egypt is not a new idea. Similar attempts have been made over the past three decades, but have not been successful. However, what distinguishes these efforts today are two factors: first, the level of effort undertaken and second, the changing regional and global dynamics. In previous efforts, no positive steps were taken between the two countries, only promising statements from each side expressing a desire to improve relations. But this time, important efforts have been made by Iraq and Oman in order to facilitate direct talks and bring the parties closer. Due to the influence of regional and global dynamics, the normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran has had positive effects throughout the region and has created a suitable atmosphere for de-escalation that has not been seen in the past decades. Normalization between Saudi Arabia and Iran will reduce any opposition from the Persian Gulf countries to Egypt’s decision to normalize relations with Tehran. In fact, President Al-Sisi could potentially use this development as an excuse to justify the normalization of relations with Iran. Cairo has welcomed the Saudi-Iranian normalization, but is still assessing the impact of this development on Iran’s position on various regional issues. During the eight years under Abdul Fattah al-Sisi’s rule, relations between Iran and Egypt were relatively cold, however no deep crisis occurred between the two countries.

The emerging warming of relations is the result of contacts made in the past two years, which include talks between al-Sisi and Iran’s foreign minister at an international conference in Baghdad in August 2021, a meeting between Egypt’s intelligence minister and Iran’s vice president in November 2022. It was the interaction between the intelligence agencies of both countries that finally accelerated after the renewal of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with the mediation of Oman and Iraq. It is important to acknowledge that despite their opposing political ideologies, both Egypt and Iran have extended their support to the Syrian government led by Bashar al-Assad over the past decade. This happened while the majority of the countries of the [Persian] Gulf Cooperation Council were against the Assad government. Therefore, this issue can be a strategic advantage to accelerate the reconciliation process between Iran and Egypt, especially now that Syria has been returned to the Arab League and the Syrian president has been warmly welcomed in Jeddah. The normalization of relations between Iran and Egypt on a regional scale will have a direct impact on the security of the countries of the [Persian] Gulf Cooperation Council. At this juncture, the Persian Gulf region needs de-escalation and security stability more than anything else. By pursuing its ambitious Vision 2030 plan, Saudi Arabia seeks to attract foreign investment and ensure long-term economic stability. The UAE also seeks to ensure the security of maritime trade and the safe and free passage of ships in the surrounding waters. On a global scale, Russia’s war in Ukraine and China’s increasing influence in the Middle East and North Africa have had a significant impact on regional developments and can bring Egypt and Iran closer to normalizing their relations than ever before. Because both countries have strong ties with Russia and China that offer the potential for significant political, economic, and geostrategic benefits. Moreover, both countries are using the rivalry between the US and China to advance their regional agendas. Egypt is strengthening its ties with Moscow, while Iran is using its ties with Moscow and Beijing to mitigate the impact of US sanctions and avoid isolation.

For Iran and Egypt, normalization does not necessarily mean eliminating or solving all differences between them, but rather means pragmatic cooperation in pursuit of common interests, both bilateral and regional. For Egypt, economic considerations play an important role in shaping its policy towards Iran. Egypt seeks to increase the sale of its goods in the Iranian market. Egypt can receive some consumer goods under the conditions of Iran embargo with suitable and long-term conditions and even use its national currency. Meanwhile, Egypt is the most populous Arab country with the largest import of wheat. It has faced a serious challenge due to the Ukraine crisis, because it is heavily dependent on imported wheat from Russia and Ukraine, and like many of its neighbors, it has not benefited from the recent increase in global oil prices. In terms of tourism, there is an opportunity to expand religious tourism to Shiite sites (such as Malik Ashtar’s tomb) in Egypt and South Sinai. In the field of security, Egypt is looking for Iran’s help to prevent the activities of the Houthis along the Bab al-Mandab strait and to ensure the freedom of navigation in the Red Sea, especially through the Suez Canal, which is a very good source of income for this country. For Iran, improving its relations with the Arab world is an opportunity to deal with regional developments where Israel and some Arab countries are trying to create a regional coalition against Iran. In addition, by improving its relations with Egypt, Iran can provide ways to expand its economic and trade relations in the region, including through the use of the Suez Canal and increasing its exports to Egypt. This is in line with Iran’s resistance economy strategy, which aims to strengthen the country’s resilience against international sanctions by strengthening trade with regional markets. Iran seeks to bypass US sanctions and export to neighboring countries, and Egypt provides with very good opportunity to export consumer goods. National, religious and cultural differences play a very minor role in the bilateral relations between Cairo and Tehran. Nevertheless, the process of normalizing relations between Egypt and Iran faces many challenges.

First, Egypt has a cautious stance towards Iran’s role and regional influence and considers it a potential threat to its regional interests. Despite Egypt’s current weak position, it still aspires to maintain its position as a regional power, which may cause tension with other regional actors, especially Iran and Turkey.

Second, Iran’s strong ties with Palestinian factions are a potential obstacle to normalizing relations with Cairo. Both Egypt and Iran may engage in a power struggle to exert influence over these factions, guided by their own interests and agendas.

Third, a critical obstacle lies in the conflicting positions of both countries regarding their relations with Israel. While al-Sisi in Egypt has strong ties with Tel Aviv, Iran remains a major enemy of Israel. This dissonance raises concerns about Egypt’s ability to effectively balance its relations with Tehran and Tel Aviv. In addition, Egypt’s strategic relationship with the United States may hinder the country’s ability to develop strong ties with Iran, as Tehran remains a staunch adversary of Washington.

Fourth, regional politics and the position of global powers had a much greater impact on Iran-Egypt relations. Under the influence of external factors, Egypt and Iran saw each other as rivals for influence in the Persian Gulf and tried to prevent the superiority of the other.

Fifth, there are signs that the Vienna talks on Iran’s nuclear issue could come to a conclusion soon. Egypt’s positions will be determined based on the nature of such an agreement, whether it includes Iran’s ballistic missile case and regional behavior or not. Therefore, if this country’s calculations and concerns are ignored in this agreement, it may be an obstacle to Cairo-Tehran relations.

Sixth, Iran is worried about Egypt’s relations with Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Although the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran announced that Iran welcomes the partnership project of Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt, but internally, Tehran considers these tripartite relations as a source of threat and danger to its relations with Iraq. Iran also admits that any rapprochement between the Arabs and Syria will somehow affect the relations between Tehran and Damascus

Seventh, Egypt is concerned about the relations between Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, where Cairo considers such a group as a great threat to its stability. Therefore, the position of the Muslim Brotherhood is a fundamental determining factor in Egypt’s foreign relations. Despite the difference between the goals of Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, this did not prevent them from establishing relations. After the Iranian revolution in 1979, the Muslim Brotherhood sent a delegation to Tehran to congratulate them. After the death of Imam Khomeini (RA), the Muslim Brotherhood published an obituary, introducing Imam Khomeini (RA) as the late beloved of Islam and the leader of the Islamic Revolution against the Taghutians.

Eighth, in Iran, some people believe that establishing relations with Egypt is a betrayal of the Palestinian cause, tacit acceptance of the Camp David Agreement and submission to Egypt’s demands, including changing the name of Khalid Islambouli Street in Tehran. They believe that for a name change, Egypt should also remove the flag of the former regime of the Kingdom of Iran from the Shah’s tomb and remove the Pahlavi name from the streets of Cairo, Egypt. Despite these challenges, Egyptian sources expressed optimism about the prospect of cooperation between Egypt and Iran in the field of regional issues, especially with regard to common challenges such as terrorism, extremism, foreign intervention, and water shortage.

It is expected that Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and dr. Ebrahim Raisi will meet each other during the United Nations meetings in New York so that negotiations between the two countries can officially begin. In the last half decade, a new political order has emerged in the Middle East. The recent normalization of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the return of Syria under the leadership of Bashar al-Assad to the Arab League and the improvement of relations between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, as well as the peace talks between Türkiye and Egypt all indicate a new situation. While most of the governments of the Middle East trace their national roots to the colonial era, Cairo and Tehran are the heirs of two ancient and historical civilizations in the world. Egypt and Iran are two major regional powers with a population of nearly 200 million people, the proximity of Cairo and Tehran contributes to regional peace, trade and investment, despite decades of US sanctions, the Islamic Republic has never been completely isolated. It has not happened, unlike Europe, America and Israel, Arab countries are less worried about Iran’s nuclear program and more worried about Tehran’s regional policy. It seems that despite the many challenges, the Arab leaders, including the Egyptians, have decided to try interaction with Tehran instead of confrontation. It would take some time to find out if this new approach works as Cairo and Tehran envision. But the experience of the past decades shows that the confrontation did not work and actually fueled political instability and economic decline.


Disclaimer. The views and opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of MEPEI. Any content provided by our authors is of their opinion and is not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, individual, or anyone or anything.

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About the author:

Amir Mojtahedi

PhD student of International Relations, Shiraz University, Iran. Foreign policy researcher

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