The latest diplomatic developments in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region are looking positive for peace and prosperity. Iran and Saudi Arabia have re-established relations as part of a Chinese-brokered agreement, Syria has returned to the Arab League and also resumed ties with Riyadh, while the Kingdom has also informally acknowledged the legitimacy of the de-facto (Houthi-led) Yemeni government based in Sana'a through holding direct peace talks there.
Amid the easing of tensions between the two regional rivals, there have been reports that Iran is also looking to improve relations with Egypt and that Iraq and Oman have been facilitating talks between the two countries. This is significant as, while both Sana'a and Damascus are closely aligned with Iran, Cairo is a traditional ally of Saudi Arabia.
Last week, Iranian lawmaker, Fadahossein Maleki, and a member of the Parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy committee said in an interview with Tasnim News Agency, that relations will be restored in the near future, adding that "We will witness the opening of embassies in both countries"; this, he insisted, will be followed by a meeting between Presidents Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and Ebrahim Raisi.
Yesterday, Mehr News Agency, citing "informed sources" reported that Egypt is ready to enhance its diplomatic relations with Tehran. This development comes in the wake of Sultan Haitham bin Tarik of Oman's visit to Cairo on Sunday to discuss "regional and international developments", with Iran believed to be a key focus of the agenda. Strengthening these indications, the Sultan is scheduled to embark on a two-day visit to Iran this coming Sunday, further emphasising the potential outcomes of the discussions.
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Egypt and Iran share a complex history, marked by periods of strained relations. During the rule of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, Egypt played a pivotal role in brokering the Camp David Accords with Israel, which resulted in Egypt becoming the first Arab nation to establish formal diplomatic relations with Israel. However, this move strained Egypt's relationship with Iran, which had severed ties with Israel after the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
The so-called Arab Spring, a tumultuous period in the Middle East, further strained relations between Egypt and Iran. Egypt's ousting of long-time President, Hosni Mubarak, and subsequent political transitions led to a fluctuation in its regional alliances, notably with Turkiye. Iran's support for the Syrian government during the country's crisis and Egypt's role in the Saudi-led coalition in the war against Yemen also created divisions between the two nations.
Under the brief presidency of the late Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's first democratically-elected leader, there were initial promising signs of rapprochement with Iran. He became the first Egyptian Head of State to visit the Islamic Republic, which was accompanied with high expectations in Iranian media at the time, of Egypt "turning its back on America and Israel".
However, Morsi reportedly made no mention of upgrading ties during the visit while, according to regional expert, Reza Seyyed Afqahi, relations were not restored with the Morsi government, among other issues, due its decision not to annul the Camp David agreement.
"Unfortunately, the relations between Iran and Egypt were not restored either before the overthrow of the Mubarak government due to the Camp David Agreement, or after its overthrow, due to issues related to the Zionist regime and American pressures," he was quoted as saying.
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Despite the thawing of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, overarching US influence will likely remain a major impediment to Egypt's potential reconciliation with Tehran. Last year, Egypt marked 100 years as an independent, sovereign state, although this was only nominal until after the 1952 Revolution, which saw Gamal Abdel Nasser eventually emerge as the country's first indigenous leader in over a thousand years, and who would go on to assert the country's independence and de facto leadership of the Arab world.
Those days are, of course, long gone and, today, as an arguable US vassal state, heavily reliant on Washington for military and economic support, Egypt's alignment with US and Israeli interests may hinder full normalisation with Iran. Therefore, Cairo must carefully balance its interests with those of its powerful ally, as it weighs the potential benefits and risks of engaging with Tehran.
Furthermore, the shared border between Egypt and Israel raises apprehensions that Iran may channel support to Palestinian Resistance factions, given Iran's formidable ties with Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). Balancing regional stability with its relationship with Israel will prove to be a delicate and difficult task for Egypt.
Internally, there are also suspicions of Iran exerting its influence in the Arab world's most populous state, which is partly why Egypt has sought to effectively securitise Shia Islam in the country, banning websites and TV channels, under the guise of safeguarding the country's religious and cultural identity. Egyptian media has also downplayed recent reports of any diplomatic breakthrough with Iran. Ahram Online, citing a "well-informed source", reported that Cairo's position remains "unchanged" with the source insisting that "Nothing is happening".
Such discussions, the source explained, would require careful preparations and a checklist of engagements to be reviewed on the bilateral and regional levels, similar to what occurred with Turkiye, the report noted. Another source was quoted as saying "The ongoing official silence from Egypt is a position."
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Egypt's pursuit of normalisation with Iran presents a crucial test for its sovereignty. While Cairo may desire to chart a more independent foreign policy course, the intertwined interests and pressures from regional powers and global players pose considerable challenges. Egypt's ability to assert its sovereignty and safeguard its national interests will be closely scrutinised.
If Cairo is to consider recalibrating its foreign policy, it will need to carefully balance its existing alliances with the potential advantages of reaching out to Iran. Ultimately, the decision will depend on Egypt's assessment of its own strategic interests and the pursuit of stability in the wider region. Although the path towards normalising relations with Iran may be intricate, it has the capacity to reshape MENA dynamics and foster a more balanced and interconnected region.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.