Egypt-Iran Foreign Relations
Ties between Iran and Hosni Mubarak-led Egypt had been contentious since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The initial source of agitation for Iran was Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s decision to accept peace with Israel following the 1978 Camp David Accords and the 1979 signing of a formal Egypt-Israel peace treaty. Ayatollah Khomeini denounced Sadat’s decision, labeling it “treason against Islam,” and called on the Egyptian people to overthrow his government. The Islamic Republic was further aggravated by Egypt’s decision to allow the deposed shah of Iran and his family to live in Cairo. The two states broke off diplomatic relations in June 1979 and have yet to officially restore ties.
Egypt’s support for Iraq during the latter’s war with Iran from 1980-1989 was another serious source of hostility between the two states. Though Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had similarly condemned Egypt for accepting peace with Israel, Egypt provided Iraq with an estimated $5 billion in weapons from 1980 to 1987, including tanks, munitions, and a version of the Soviet Scud B missile. Egypt’s close alliance with the United States also aggravated Iranian officials. Egypt is a major recipient of U.S. economic aid, averaging $2 billion annually since 1979.
The government of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt viewed the Islamic Republic and its support for the terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah as a threat to regional security. The anti-Israel group Hamas is a violent offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, a group that had been banned by the Egyptian government, and is based in the Gaza Strip bordering Egyptian territory. The Egyptian government has viewed Iran’s support for Hamas as interference in Egypt’s domestic affairs and a challenge to its national security. Egypt’s concern over Iran’s support for Hezbollah was magnified when Egyptian officials arrested 25 members of the terrorist organization in 2009 for plotting to attack vessels traveling through the Suez Canal, detonate explosives at Egyptian tourist sites, and smuggle weapons to militants in the Gaza strip. The Egyptian government had also accused Iran of supporting Egyptian al Jihad, the terrorist group responsible for the assassination of Anwar Sadat. Likewise, Egypt was angered over the Islamic Republic’s refusal to rename a Tehran street it had dedicated to Sadat’s assassin, Khaled al Islambouli. Tehran’s city council finally agreed to rename the street in 2004.
Egypt has also viewed Iran’s nuclear program as a potential threat. President Hosni Mubarak and Egyptian officials had been supportive of Iran’s right to a peaceful nuclear program but vehemently opposed to Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon. Egypt’s UN envoy said in 2010 that Egypt will not stand by idly as “second-class citizens” in the Middle East if other countries acquire nuclear weapons.
Since the fall of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, Iranian officials have worked with Egypt’s interim government to slowly restore diplomatic ties. Shortly after Mubarak stepped down from office, the Islamic Republic issued its first diplomatic challenge to the Egyptian government by requesting permission to pass two of its warships through the Suez Canal, the first such passage by an Iranian naval vessel since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. The Egyptian government acquiesced under the condition that the vessels did not carry “military equipment, nuclear materials, or chemicals.” An Egyptian government spokesperson said a few months later that Mubarak’s regime “used to see Iran as an enemy, we don’t.” It is clear, however, that in the wake of the Arab Spring friction still remains between the two countries. In May 2011, Egyptian authorities arrested and deported an Iranian diplomat for passing intelligence reports to Iran’s government. In July 2011, Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Al Arabi told his Saudi counterpart that “relations with Iran won’t be at the expense of Egypt’s relations with the Arab Gulf, or [at] their expense of security and stability.” Despite these issues, the high-level visit of Iranian officials to Cairo in August 2011 suggests that Iran and Egypt may be on a path to restore official ties.
April 17, 2011: Egyptian foreign ministry spokeswoman Menha Bakhour asserted, “We are prepared to take a different view of Iran. The former regime used to see Iran as an enemy, but we don’t.”
May 28, 2010: Egypt’s ambassador to the UN Abed Abdelaziz stated “We in Egypt are against even the presence of nuclear weapons in our region. But if others will acquire nuclear weapons -- and if others are going to use these nuclear weapons to acquire status in the region of the Middle East -- let me tell you, we are not going to accept to be second-class citizens in the region of the Middle East.” Abdelaziz made the comments to reporters at the 2010 Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty review conference.
April 29, 2010: Prior to the UN meeting on the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Egyptian Ambassador to the UN Maged Abdelaziz stated that, “success in dealing with Iran will depend to a large extent on how successfully we deal with the establishment of a nuclear-free zone.”
April 12, 2010: Egyptian officials taking part in a two-day Nuclear Security Summit in Kuwait voiced their opposition to military strikes against Iran. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu Gheit added, “we do not think that more sanction[s] is the right way to deal with Iran.”
March 11, 2010: Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu Gheit expressed his country’s support for Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear but urged the Islamic Republic’s leadership to cooperate with the international community.
April 27, 2009: U.S. Special Adviser for the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia Dennis Ross visited Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Bahrain and Qatar to discuss diplomatic efforts to engage Iran on its nuclear program.
December 16, 2008: Egypt was among seven Arab nations to meet with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany in Sharm el Sheikh to discuss Iran’s nuclear program. According to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, “All there expressed their concern about Iran's nuclear policies and its regional ambitions.”
December 3, 2008: Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu Gheit stated that “Egypt supports international efforts to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons,” but rejected military action against Iran as an effective means of halting its nuclear program. He also added that Egypt supports each nation’s right to develop peaceful nuclear technology.
August 16, 2008: Egyptian presidential spokesman Suleiman Awwad defended Iran’s right to a peaceful nuclear program but urged the Islamic Republic to refrain from provoking Western nations: “Iran should not present on a silver platter the justifications and the pretexts for those who want to drag the region down a dangerous slope.”
January 24, 2007: Arab League Secretary General and former Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa told reporters at the World Economic Forum that “attacking Iran would be counterproductive.”
August 2, 2011: A delegation of Egyptian investors and businessmen met with officials from Iran’s Chamber of Commerce, Industries & Mines in an effort to begin restoring bilateral trade relations between the two states.
December 3, 2007: Iranian Minister of Industry and Mines Ali Akbar Mehrabian met in Cairo with Egypt’s Minister of Foreign Trade and Industry Rachid Mohamed Rachid.
August 8, 2011: An Iranian delegation led by the head of the parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee Alaeddin Boroujerdi visited Cairo for a meeting with various Egyptian officials, including Foreign Minister Nabil al Arabi.
July 22, 2011: Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi told state-media “The expansion of diplomatic ties between Iran and Egypt to ambassadorial level will be beneficial to regional peace and security, as both sides desire stability and tranquility in the region.”
July 4, 2011: Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Al Arabi stated that “relations with Iran won’t be at the expense of Egypt’s relations with the Arab Gulf, or on their expense of security and stability.” Al Arabi made the remarks during a meeting with his Saudi counterpart Prince Saud al-Faisal.
June 1, 2011: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told a gathering of Egyptians that he would like to see a post-Mubarak Egypt that is “anti-arrogance (Iran's shorthand for the West) and anti-Zionist.”
May 30, 2011: Egyptian officials deported Iranian diplomat Qassem Hosseini after arresting him for espionage. Hosseini was accused of passing intelligence reports to Iran.
April 28, 2011: Egyptian foreign ministry spokeswoman Menha Bakhoum stated that Egypt’s new government believes the Gaza-Egypt border blockade to be “shameful,” adding that Egypt intended to open its border “completely” in the near future. Bakhoum elaborated: “we look at Iran as a neighbor in the region that we should have normal relations with. Iran is not perceived as an enemy as it was under the previous regime, and it is not perceived as a friend.” An Israeli official said his country was “troubled by some of the recent actions coming out of Egypt,” including its rapprochement with Iran.
February 22, 2011: Two Iranian warships passed through the Suez Canal en route to Latakia, Syria after Egyptian authorities granted the vessels access through the waterway. It was the first such passage by Iranian naval vessels since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
January 1, 2011: Egyptian security officials barred Iranian activists from travelling with an aid convoy into the Gaza strip through its Rafah border for “security and organizational reasons.”
September 2, 2010: Egyptian officials postponed a visit by Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki for comments he made regarding the presence of Arab leaders during Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in Washington. Mottaki’s comments were quoted by Iran’s Fars News Agency earlier in the week: “Some Palestinian leaders, who are for compromise, are these days following an order from America and building the table of negotiation with heads of the Zionist regime.”
October 4, 2010: Iranian and Egyptian civil aviation and tourism officials agreed to resume direct flights between the two countries after a 31-year ban.
February 7, 2010: Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Admiral Mullen stated that Iran was a “principal topic” of the meeting.
December 20, 2009: Iranian parliament speaker Ali Larijani met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo to discuss bilateral relations. It was the first high-level meeting between the two countries since ties were strained during the conflict between Israel and Gaza earlier the same year.
April 13, 2009: Egyptian officials revealed details on a plot by Iranian-backed Hezbollah to “destabilize Egypt.” The plot included plans to target ships in Egypt’s Suez Canal and Israeli tourist locations in the Sinai Peninsula, and to smuggle weapons into the Gaza Strip.
April 8, 2009: Egyptian police arrested 25 individuals, charging 13 with “espionage and illegal possession of weapons and explosives.” Egyptian officials asserted that the individuals were working for the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah. Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah confirmed the Egyptian officials’ claim in a statement following the arrest, in which he acknowledge that at least one of the men in custody, Hezbollah member Sami Shihab, had been dispatched to Egypt to conduct reconnaissance.
January 10, 2009: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad accused Egypt of providing Israel with “a partner for its crimes,” referring to clashes between Israeli soldiers and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip. “I believe that in the current conditions, and with the crimes it is committing, the Zionist regime (Israel) is after finding a partner for its crimes…. Therefore I ask the Egyptian officials to announce their stance on the Palestinian nation, especially on the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip and the Zionist regime's crimes,” Ahmadinejad said.
December 30, 2008: Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abu Gheit ridiculed the military records of Iran and the Iranian-backed terrorist organization Hezbollah. Speaking of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah Gheit said: “You are a man who used to enjoy respect, but you have insulted the Egyptian people.” Alluding to Iran’s non-participation in the regional wars with Israel, Gheit said “It's as if hundreds of thousands of Iranians shed their blood over the last 30 years.”
January 31, 2008: Iran’s parliament speaker Gholam Ali Haddad Adel met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in an effort to begin restoring relations between the two countries. According to Haddad Adel the talks were “constructive.” He added, “A strong Egypt, a strong Iran and cooperation between these two poles of the Islamic world could push forward peace efforts.”
January 28, 2008: Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki announced that Iran and Egypt were “on the threshold of establishing official, political relations and are waiting for our Egyptian brothers to express their readiness.”