Tags: egypt | iran | tehran | mubarak

Egypt Eyes Ties With Iran

Monday, 11 Apr 2011 11:57 AM

By Judith Miller

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Unwrap the gum; place in mouth, and chew. Then start walking. It shouldn't be all that tough for reporters (or the government, for that matter) to handle more than one foreign policy crisis at a time. But apparently it is.

Looking at the headlines, you might think that Libya is the only country in the world facing civil strife. It's all Libya, all the time.

Getting rid of Moammar Gadhafi matters, particularly to the young liberal Arab reformers pushing for change throughout the Middle East; to the reform movements in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia; and to the American-supported NATO alliance which has invested over a billion dollars so far to help nudge Gadhafi out of office in the guise of protecting residents of Benghazi. But however important his ouster may be, another recent development may turn out to be even more vital to U.S. national security.

Consider, for instance, Egypt's apparent decision to restore relations with Iran following the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. The first hint of what is now a virtually-done diplomatic deal came last month, when Egypt's transition Foreign Minister Nabil El-Arabi met in Cairo with Mujtaba Amani, the Iranian charge d'affaires.

The state-run news agency MENA quoted El-Arabi as saying that Egypt wanted to open a "new page" with the Islamic Republic, adding that the two countries "deserve to have mutual relations reflecting their history and civilization." His genteel formulation glossed over the fact that it was Tehran that severed ties with Cairo in 1980 to protest Egypt's recognition of Israel.

Since then, both countries have maintained only interest sections in their respective capitals, rather than actual embassies.

So this is a big deal. Cairo has been a staunch ally in America's Arab-supported campaign to contain Iranian influence in the region and prevent Tehran from developing atomic bombs. Iran's growing regional clout and aid to terrorist groups abroad threaten not only Israel, but also such Sunni Arab states as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and, yes, Egypt.

The post-Mubarak government's sudden interest in enhanced relations with the mullahs sends a signal of weakness that can only encourage them.

Even under President Mubarak, Cairo had begun working to improve ties with Tehran. But its flirtations with rapprochement were usually mugged by reality as Iran persisted in funneling money and arms to militant Hamas in Gaza, right on Egypt's border, and to Lebanon's Hezbollah.

In April, 2009, for instance, Egypt arrested 42 members of the Iranian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah whom it accused of trying to conduct "hostile operations" in the Sinai and against other Egyptian targets. The Egyptian daily Al-Ahram reported at the time that Iran had helped plan what would have been devastating terrorist strikes in a country so dependent on tourism, which usually ranks among Egypt's top three sources of income.

Israel has also long enjoyed cooperation with Egypt to thwart Iranian-planned and -funded terrorism through Gaza. According to a 2009 U.S. cable from Tel Aviv to Washington, published by WikiLeaks, Israeli military officials told their American counterparts that cooperation with Cairo would be "required" in any expanded effort to curtail arms smuggling from Iran to Hamas, some of which goes through tunnels linking Egypt to Gaza.

Months after Operation Cast Lead, Israel's 2008-2009 invasion of Gaza, Iran was helping Hamas replenish its weapons stockpiles. In response, Egypt stepped up its anti-smuggling efforts by "assigning guards to newly discovered tunnel entries" and even blowing up tunnels.

In late 2009, the cable stated, Israel estimated that the Egyptian army had destroyed 20 to 40 tunnels.

But Egypt's once fairly robust counterterrorism partnership with Israel may be a thing of the past, given Foreign Minister El-Arabi's increasingly sharp tone towards Israel.

Egyptian officials have tried putting their own happy spin on what one diplomat calls the Egyptian people's demand for a more independent foreign policy, one that is less "subservient" to Washington. Restoring diplomatic ties with Iran would not automatically end Sunni Muslim Egypt's suspicion of its historic Shiite rival, he said. Nor would it alter Egypt's determination to dissuade Tehran from developing nuclear weapons, he assured me. "Egypt knows where its national interests lie," he said. "Watch what we do, not what we say."

Perhaps. But much will depend on who wins Egypt's parliamentary and presidential elections this fall. In a vote last month, 77 percent of Egyptians endorsed constitutional amendments that the Muslim Brotherhood supported and pro-democracy activities opposed.
If the Islamists gain again, the most populous Arab nation may move even further away from the United States and from Israel, its partner in what had been, even under Mubarak, an ice-cold peace.
The effort to contain Iran, a major American goal, would be dramatically set back without Egyptian support. But the American media have moved on. There's fighting in Libya among its 6 million people to cover. Egypt with its population of 85 million, is so yesterday's story.

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