Conference Report on the future of Iranian-Egyptian relations, September 10, 2012

The Arab Forum for Alternatives (AFA) organized a conference entitled “The future of Iranian- Egyptian Relations”, which was held at the AFA premises on the 10th of September 2012.

The session was presided by Dr. Amr ElShobaki, AFA’s president; and had as main speakers: Dr, Nevine Mossad, Political Science Professor at Cairo University, and H.E Ambassador Khaled Emara, the head of the Egyptian Diplomatic Mission to Iran.

First Speaker: Dr. Nevine Mossaad (Political Science Professor, Cairo University)

On July 30, 2012, Egypt moved to a second transitional stage. Will this stage represent a qualitative difference to what was before the revolution, or even after the revolution until the arrival of the president?

Managing relations between Egypt and Iran was always a concern of national security, and with the military in power this dimension increased in sensitivity.

With the aftermath of the revolution and the Islamists’ arrival in power, the shared issue of Palestine, which has increased in momentum since the revolution, has been a bright spot in the dealings with Iran.

There have been two revolutions – Iran in 1979 and Egypt in 2012 – and both of them resulted in governing by Islamic movements.

The characteristics of the Mubarak era ranged between two boundaries: cold relations, and confrontational relations in politics, diplomacy, and sometimes military matters during the first and second Gulf Wars.

After the revolution when Khomeini mentioned that the Egyptian revolution was an Islamic revolution like Iran, he provoked the ire of many Egyptians. Then came the issue of the Iranian spy, which was an event with significant aspects of ambiguity. When the Foreign Minister Nabil al-Arabi announced that Egypt considered Iran a non-hostile state, adverse statements were issued by the Gulf States, so he confirmed that the security of the gulf was a red line and the Prime Minister Essam Sharaf carried out his visit to the gulf.

Many signals have been issued from Iran because the country is prepared to assist and open relations with Egypt, whether through tourism, exporting wheat, or mutual visits on either the popular or official level. The relationship between the peoples has experienced greater motion than the official relationship.

Will Muhammad Morsi’s style for dealing with Iran be different? In truth, it will not. The second transitional stage began in a crisis represented by the issue with the Iranian News Agency, then it raised the question about the visit to the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement and reluctance concerning its affairs, and in his visit to Saudi Arabia Morsi announced that Egypt and Saudi Arabia are supporters of moderate Sunni Islam. Consequently, official Egyptian actions have encouraged this sectarian viewpoint for relations with Iran. The media was pushed to translate satisfactorily for the Egyptian Salafi movement, and it sharply attacked the politics of Iran in the Syrian crisis without waging a similar attack against China, for example. Iran has many different cards to play in the region, whether in Iraq, Syria, the Gulf as a whole, or the Palestinian issue. From this perspective there is no indication that points to a return of relations, and that is because of the disorganization in the foreign ministry and the Salafi veto in internal politics and the reservations about the expansion of Shi’ism. Therefore, the situation will continue as it is.

Second Speaker: Ambassador Khaled Emara (head of the Egyptian Diplomatic Mission to Iran)

Since the sixties the Egyptian-Iranian relationship has been characterized by frequent strain. Relations were cut following the Iranian recognition of Israel in the sixties and then again in the seventies because of the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel (the Israeli factor).

Now there are relations on the level of protecting interests between the two countries, but the relationship has been highly informal, and relations are continuing as if they are on the embassy level.

Egypt’s regional position has receded for more than twenty years. Perhaps since 1967 Egypt has been classified as a major regional state by all measures, but it withdrew from playing this role in a way that led to a gap supposedly filled by lesser sub-roles. As a result it is necessary to search for the reasons for this withdrawal and the accusations of carrying it out far from both the Arab and Non-Arab regional players.

There is strategic competition between the regional powers over interests and roles. We now have moral strength after the revolution, and it is possible for us to utilize this role by presenting a model of revolution that carries great regional influence.

The nature of the future relationship: the continuation of regional competition is a natural thing and it is inevitable that there will be understandings and areas of intersection between the principal players, whether on the issue of Syria or Palestine and especially with the increasing existence of shared issues of interest. Why the changing influence of external factors on Egypt’s internal decision making process? It is changing toward an increase in independence, especially in issues where Egypt can directly impact the region without major changes in its strong allies. There is a transformation towards the realization of national interests, not personal interests. The security perspective is changing to a political perspective, whether in development of the narrative of our regional role or our international relationships. The production of foreign policy is developing, and perhaps the research centers interested in the subject will play a greater role on the topic in the future to increase guidance in political and policy decision making.

It is not just a visit that will lead to a return of relations, and the purpose of the visit that the president carried out was to acknowledge the leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement. It would not be correct for Egypt to be absent from such a summit, since the president has confirmed several times that we want natural relations with all states of the world. What needs to be changed is the security perspective.

The Gulf Factor: After the Mecca Summit and the agreement for a strong relationship between most of the Gulf States and Iran, there will not be a call from these states to push Egypt far from this reading of the relationship with Iran.

We need a deep and detailed reading of our foreign policy in its entirety and a new review of what we need from our policies and relations with all of the various players.

There are several common spheres in which to initiate movement between the two states, such as the Greater Middle East and the Islamic sphere. These include significant economic interests that must be taken into account, particularly after the Western States’ suffering during the financial crisis and the strong economic move towards the East and the South. Additionally there is the non-aligned movement, and there are regional security circles in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf and key areas in Egypt and Iran.

Preparing Egypt’s international role must remain a key concern for the country now and always, along with developing our relations with other countries. Egypt has outstanding soft power, and it is possible that Egypt can avoid sectarian conflict by using its moderate Islam, ancient religious institutions, committees for rapprochement between sects, and scientific dialogues to potentially sweep the problem away, surpassing conspiracy theories and always aiming to move beyond the idea of the Shi’ite tide and the Shi’ite crescent by confronting it with thinking and not with a boycott or conflict.

· Interventions from the attendees:

The questions and comments from the attendees can be summed up in the following points:

An opinion from the attendees focused on Egypt’s need to use our moral power coming out of Tahrir Square experience, but there is an observation that talking about the Tahrir model is losing its luster, and it is on us to present a modern democratic model in Egypt’s regime. There are models of relations linked to the way in which decisions are made in foreign policy; especially the way to utilize Egyptian soft power is through delegations, student exchanges, and Egyptian cinema, theater, and radio like it was before.

Another opinion assumed that the Egyptian role is there, along with the tools of both soft and hard power, but you don’t exercise it. The imbalance is in who makes decisions, but Egypt is not easy to exercise pressure on. The case of Egypt returning to relations with Iran is wanted of course, but the Egypt. However, it is to note that normal Iranian diplomacy is extraordinary, but the official Iranian foreign policy isn’t as disciplined as the Israeli foreign policy.

Another question was raised about the real actor behind feeding the sectarian dimension of the relationship between Iran and Egypt? Referring to oppressing Sunni minorities inside Iran, the support the Iranian regime gives to the regime in Syria and the support to revolution in Bahrain. Can Iran be creating a regional threat?

A number of question were also raised about the role of the gulf and the extent of the pressure that it has put on Egypt when it comes to returning diplomatic relations between the two countries. Were you surprised by the extent of the escalation in Egypt foreign policy in regards to Syria? Also, what is the role of the foreign ministry in producing Egyptian foreign policy in general?

· Speakers’ responses:

Dr. Nevine Mossad

What I want to say is that cutting off relations did not lead to anything except an increase in the Iranian role in the region, and a big part of the solution is in the hands of Iran. Iran now has a stronger presence in the Gulf, Iraq, and Palestine than that which existed before the severance of relations with the country. All of the states of the world have relations with Iran except Egypt, Israel, and the United States, and therefore this triangle must be broken. Perhaps the Egyptian initiative towards Syria and the meeting of the foreign ministers of the Islamic Quartet today in Cairo will mark the beginning of the activation of these relations.

I see what Ambassador Khalid Emara said as being more diplomatic than political. Influence of the foreign ministry on internal politics has increased greatly, and the visits by the president and the prime minister to Saudi Arabia first are evidence of the increased influence of the Gulf on Egypt. The Emirates are the number one trading partner with Iran now, and their view of Egypt as a bulwark is exaggerated.

The political perspective and the security perspective: if we consider the subject purely political, then the fear of the Shi’ite tide is not enough of a justification. The security perspective is not only an issue of spies, as the breaking of national cohesion is a security issue and exporting the Shi’ite idea to us is unacceptable. Iran is skilled at political maneuvering, whether in its nuclear program or in its infiltration of the Gulf.

Ambassador Khaled Emara

We possess the right to use nuclear power peacefully whether in Iran or otherwise. Egypt has an initiative to remove nuclear weapons from the Middle East, and Iran’s possession of peaceful nuclear technology is important for the country to support Egypt’s position.

The economic aspects of the relationship with Iran are important. Iran is a significant petrol state that has sizeable trade relations with many states from both the East and the West. The amount of its commerce with Nigeria is 8 billion dollars, and the amount of its commerce with Indonesia is 12 billion dollars. Between these two countries, Egypt has only 126 million dollars of commerce. Eighty-five percent of Iranian oil passes through the SUMED Pipeline. The Gulf veto on the relationship is fundamentally linked to commercial and economic interests, as the absence of Egypt for several years led to Iranian penetration of the gaps that Egypt’s departure had left.

The issue of interests and values: The power of the model that we are able to present is valuable, and it will put us in international politics in the next stage.

The role of the foreign ministry in shaping policy: the political leaders today are accountable, and therefore they are consulting institutions, including the foreign ministry, in many issues.

The issue of independence in foreign policy: complete independence does not exist. Egypt has started to pursue its interests whether in the case of Syria or other issues, and its attendance at the Non-Aligned Summit after the visit to Saudi Arabia was a national interest. Foreign policy reflects the strength of the state internally.

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