The Enduring Egypt-Iran Divide

WASHINGTON, DC – Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi may look besieged at home, but by brokering a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in November, he enhanced his diplomatic stature mightily across the entire Middle East. Indeed, as 2012 comes to a close, Egypt’s centrality to regional diplomacy has been restored. The big question for 2013 is whether Morsi will follow his achievement in Gaza by tackling another major diplomatic challenge: rebuilding relations with Iran after more than three decades of animosity.

Initially, the Muslim Brotherhood’s ascent to power in the aftermath of the massive popular protests that toppled Morsi’s predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, inspired hope of renewed diplomatic ties with Iran. But, despite shared ideological principles, significant political obstacles continue to inhibit bilateral cooperation.

Relations between the two countries collapsed in 1980, after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power in Iran’s Islamic Revolution and severed ties in response to Egypt’s formal recognition of Israel the previous year. Egypt’s then-president, Anwar El Sadat, granted the exiled Shah of Iran permission to live in Egypt, and supported Iraq in its eight-year war with the Islamic Republic. The Shah was ultimately buried in a mosque in Cairo.

After Mubarak’s ouster last year, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei welcomed the prospect of Islamist rule, with delegations from both countries exchanging visits. For Khamenei, the “Arab Spring” was in fact an “Islamic Awakening.”