Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Tuesday became the first Iranian head of state since the 1979 revolution in Iran to visit Egypt. Ahmadinejad is attending the Organization of Islamic Conference summit in Cairo, and his visit to the Egyptian capital comes six months after Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi traveled to Tehran for the 16th Non-Aligned Movement summit. The visits are more indicative of Tehran and Cairo's regional ambitions than the state of their bilateral relations.
While in Cairo, Ahmadinejad gave a speech at al-Azhar University. It is extremely rare for an Iranian Shiite leader to speak at the most respected center of religious learning in the Sunni Islamic world. There is a reason al-Azhar's top religious scholar, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, in a meeting with Ahmadinejad, reportedly insisted that Tehran respect Bahrain as a fellow Arab nation and not interfere in the affairs of Gulf states. Al-Tayeb also expressed opposition to what he called the spread of Shiism in Sunni lands. The concerns raised by Egypt's top religious figure are understandable given the current geopolitical tensions in both countries between the two rival Islamic sects.
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Iran and Egypt have a contentious political and religious history. Al-Azhar was founded when Egypt was ruled by the Shia Ismaili Fatimid caliphate from the early 10th to the late 12th century. The religious institution didn't begin teaching Sunni Islam until 12th-century sultan Saladin conquered Egypt in 1171. In the modern nation-state era, Egyptian-Iranian relations were severed after the 1979 revolution in Iran that toppled the monarchy and brought the current Shiite Islamist regime to power. The last time an Iranian head of state traveled to Egypt was in 1980, when the ousted and ailing Iranian monarch, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, was given asylum by then-Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat in Cairo, where the last Iranian monarch died and is buried.
Cairo's decision to offer sanctuary to Tehran's ousted monarch and its peace treaty with Israel led to a break in diplomatic relations between Iran and Egypt. Those relations have yet to be restored. In recent years, Tehran has unsuccessfully sought to mend ties with Egypt. The ouster of Sadat's successor, Hosni Mubarak, in the wake of the Arab Spring created an opportunity for the resumption of relations; Egypt's new Islamist president visited the Iranian capital last August.
Most observers will see this shift as a function of the common Islamist ideology of the two governments, but that would be a highly superficial understanding of the dynamics. In fact, their respective Islamist ideological positions would be an obstacle to any improvement of relations. After all, Egypt is a Sunni Arab country whose Islamists have a markedly different worldview than that of their Persian Shia counterparts.
If the two sides are mending fences, it is due to a convergence of interests. The impending collapse of the Syrian regime has created a dilemma for the Iranians, who are looking for a partner in the Arab world. Conversely, post-Arab Spring Egypt is seeking to revive itself as major Arab player in the region.
Given its political and economic weaknesses, Egypt is unable to compete with Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Being the only Arab state with a working relationship with Iran could enhance Egypt's position in the Arab world, especially as the Arabs and the Iranians battle through their respective proxies in Syria. Egypt is trying to emulate Syria by forging close relations with Iran while the rest of the Arab world opposes Tehran, though in a much more sophisticated way.
Unlike Syria, which since the founding of the Islamic republic has been in the Iranian camp, Egypt is trying to use its ties to Iran to leverage financial assistance from Saudi Arabia and the other Arab states in the Persian Gulf. Furthermore, Egypt hopes to use its relations with Iran to influence a political resolution to the civil war in Syria.
Likewise, Iran — weakened by the impending collapse of its ally in Damascus — sees reviving relations with Egypt as a way to salvage its position in the Levant and secure its assets in Iraq. The Egyptians and the Iranians are well aware of each others' intentions and will cautiously align to the extent their respective interests allow.
Cairo cannot allow Tehran to emerge as a major power in the region, especially while the Iranians are encroaching on Egyptian turf by providing weapons to Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Iran also knows that Egypt is not a natural ally. Thus, there are limits to Egyptian-Iranian cooperation, but the budding relationship cannot be dismissed as trivial.