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Egypt eyes Iran's overtures suspiciously

Tehran is trying to expand its influence in the Mideast, analysts say, but its ties to militants worry Cairo.

May 26, 2008|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

TEHRAN — If you want to make peace with a nation, it's probably not a good idea to have a street named after the assassin of its leader.

That dilemma speaks to the wider tensions and recriminations between Egypt and Iran, whose relations ruptured when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat granted asylum to the deposed Iranian shah and signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. Sadat was gunned down in 1981 by a group of Islamists led by Khalid Islambouli, an Egyptian soldier who was later memorialized with a street in Tehran.

Iran has made a series of overtures in recent months to overcome the bruised past and restore full diplomatic relations with Egypt. Cairo has remained coolly noncommittal. The sensitivity surrounding whispers of detente comes as Iran has risen as a power in the Middle East while Egypt, an American ally with severe domestic problems, has slipped from its stature as the leading voice in the Arab world.

Egypt has long been uncomfortable with its peace with Israel, and its relations with Washington have been strained since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Cairo also is increasingly suspicious of the ambitions of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has taken an active role in foreign policy, jetting from India to Qatar to capitalize on Iran's oil reserves and the popular appeal of his anti-Western defiance.

Iran needs Egypt to further extend Tehran's influence and legitimacy in the Middle East, said Sadr Hussiani, founder of the Iran-Egypt Friendship Council, a Tehran-based organization made up of businessmen and former government advisors. He said improved ties would benefit both capitals, adding that Iran's growing political clout "can help revive Egypt in the Arab world."

Iranian policies, however, have led to regional instability that has often infuriated the Egyptians. Tehran supports the anti-Israeli Islamist groups Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hamas has ideological and strategic links to the Muslim Brotherhood, the banned opposition party that presents the biggest threat to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The Egyptians contend that Iran is exploiting its relationship with Hamas to keep Cairo on edge over fears of a spreading Islamic militancy.

Iran's ties to Syria are also bothersome to Egypt. Damascus has long meddled in Lebanon, where political unrest has raised the danger of another civil war. To counter Shiite Iran's influence in the region, Egypt has aligned itself with fellow Sunni Arab states, most notably Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Iran has responded by attempting to improve links with Riyadh and other Persian Gulf capitals, a move viewed as part of an overall strategy of rapprochement that would eventually include Egypt.

"Iran wants Egypt to say that its peace treaty with Israel is dead. It doesn't need Cairo to say it publicly; it just wants to be given the indication," Hussiani said. "And Egypt is saying to Iran, remove our security concerns and we don't have a problem. . . . Egypt just doesn't yet trust Iran."

Although envoys from both countries have been negotiating, one doesn't have to scratch too hard to inflame Egypt's sense of mistrust.

"I think we won't be talking about prospects for the resumption of relations but a clear confrontation between the two countries and an escalation of tension," said Mohamed Abdel Salam, an expert with Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "Iran acts as if it was already in control of the Middle East; it has controlled Iraq, and it is about to control Lebanon" through its backing of Hezbollah.

The possibility of closer Egyptian-Iranian ties is being watched by Israel and the United States, which gives Cairo about $2 billion in annual aid. Some analysts believe that Egypt could temper Iran's rhetoric across the Middle East. Others, however, say Iran would use any increased leverage to undermine U.S. policy, especially in Iraq and in terms of Washington's opposition to Tehran's nuclear program.

The problem for Egypt is an inconsistent and often hesitant foreign policy that has been hampered by the country's gnawing domestic problems. The economy is growing, but inflation and civil unrest also have increased, as has anger over Mubarak's leadership. The result is that Riyadh, flush with rising oil revenues, has emerged as a leading Arab negotiator while Cairo is increasingly preoccupied with bread shortages and dissent from labor activists and the Muslim Brotherhood.

A change in course could result in both opportunity and danger. For example, Iran's nuclear program, which Washington alleges is intended to manufacture a bomb, has unnerved the Arab world, despite the Shiite state's assurances that it is strictly for civilian purposes. If so, Cairo, which has said that it is reviving plans for nuclear power to offset high energy prices, could benefit from Iranian technology.

But Egyptians are irritated at less scientific matters than splitting the atom.

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