The New-Old Rivalry: Egypt Versus Iran

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak talks to President Obama upon his arrival at Qubba palace in Cairo Egypt, May 4, 2009. AP Photo/Amr Nabil

Michael Crowley is a senior editor at The New Republic.


Iran's loathing of Egypt dates back to the late Shah, entombed in Cairo. Before Barack Obama spoke to the Muslim world from Cairo in June, the president did some sightseeing. His first stop was the Sultan Hassan mosque, a 700-year-old marvel of Islamic architecture, where he and a hijab-clad Hillary Clinton gawked at towering arches and intricate carvings. But Obama didn't stop at the mosque next door, known as Al Rifai, which houses a monument that explains much about the politics of the wider Middle East. A few steps past its entrance sits a thick marble slab cordoned off with velvet red rope. The pale green stone bears a coat of arms and an ornate inscription written in Persian: "His Imperial Majesty, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, Shahanshah of Iran."

This is the tomb of the last Iranian monarch, who fled his country just before Ayatollah Khomeini's 1979 Islamic revolution and was given asylum by Egypt's president, Anwar Sadat. That was more than an act of humanity; it was an affront to the revolutionary mullahs in Tehran, who had been demanding their deposed leader's extradition. Sadat had been feuding with the mullahs since he had negotiated peace with Israel at Camp David in 1978. At the time, Khomeini had called Sadat a traitor to the Palestinians and to Muslims everywhere, while Sadat, a Sunni Muslim, branded the Shia Khomeini "a lunatic madman ... who has turned Islam into a mockery." Death did nothing to lessen the feud: When Pahlavi died of cancer in July 1980, Sadat granted him a state funeral and buried him at Al Rifai, in a room by the tombs of two former Egyptian kings. And, when a young Egyptian soldier named Khalid Islambouli emptied his machine gun into Sadat a year later, Tehran promptly issued a postage stamp in Islambouli's honor, named a street in Tehran after him, and painted a nearby building with a four-story mural of the glorious martyr (he was captured and executed).

The Cairo tomb and the Tehran avenue go a long way to illustrate the bitter relationship between Egypt and Iran--a relationship that has only degenerated further in recent months. And it appears that official Obama administration policy will be to exploit that tension to the fullest. That explains why the president is cozying up to Egypt's authoritarian dictator, Hosni Mubarak--saying nothing at Cairo University about Mubarak's penchant for political repression and torture. Obama clearly appreciates that this Egyptian-Iranian blood feud well serves his struggle to reach peace in the Middle East and stop Iran from becoming a nuclear-armed regional superpower. Democracy and human rights can wait.

Although Egypt and Iran have spent much of the past 30 years hissing at one another from afar, things have taken a recent turn for the worse. One big reason is the chaos in Gaza. After Hamas seized power there in 2007, Egypt sealed its border with the Palestinian territory--and kept it sealed even as Israel's military offensive inflamed the Arab world last winter. Mubarak was wary of potential cross-pollination between Hamas and its allies in Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood--the officially banned Islamist opposition party that spawned Hamas--possibly leading to terror attacks within his country. The move also pleased Mubarak's financial and political patrons in Washington.

For Iran, this was all further proof that Mubarak is an infidel in the pocket of the United States and the Jews. It enraged Hassan Nasrallah, the spiritual leader of Hezbollah, who accused Mubarak of "taking part in the crime" of Israel's campaign and called for the overthrow of his regime. In Tehran, where hard-line media reportedly have called Mubarak "a Zionist agent," demonstrators called for his hanging.

But Mubarak, who in 28 years of authoritarian rule has learned something about stubbornness, hasn't relented. Since Israel withdrew from Gaza in January, Egypt has maintained an unusually strict (if not totally airtight) security presence along the Gaza border. "They seem to be taking it seriously this time, " one Egyptian police officer stationed at the border town of Rafah told the Los Angeles Times in February. Fouad Allam, a former chief of Egypt's internal security services, agrees. "Egypt has taken a lot of steps to secure the area. It is safer for Egypt and for Israel," says Allam (a man cognizant enough of the threat posed by the Islamic radicals he once hunted to post two armed guards in business suits outside his home).

Fears of Iranian-backed terrorist infiltration were validated a few months after the Gaza ceasefire. In mid-April, Egypt announced it had arrested 49 members and sympathizers of an alleged Hezbollah cell who were planning terror attacks against Israeli tourists in the Sinai Peninsula, as well as looking to foment a coup in Cairo. A barrage of invective for Hezbollah followed, with one state-controlled Egyptian paper blasting Nasrallah as a "bandit" and a "monkey sheik."

But the real vitriol was reserved for Iran. It's no secret that Hezbollah is an Iranian proxy--Tehran may send Hezbollah $100 million or more per year-- and the Egyptians saw its presence on their soil as a grave provocation, further evidence for the widespread Sunni belief that the Shia clerics in Tehran, determined to export their revolution across the Arab world, are meddling in Egyptian affairs. "Iran, and Iran's followers, want Egypt to become a maid of honor for the crowned Iranian queen when she enters the Middle East," Egypt's foreign minister fumed in April. Mubarak himself has been more bellicose, delivering a stemwinder aimed at Tehran soon after the arrests. "We are aware of your plans," he railed. "We will uncover all of your plots and we will respond to your ploys. Stop using the Palestinian issue, and beware the wrath of Egypt."

This sort of trash talk should delight the Obama administration, which has inherited from George W. Bush a kind of cold war in the Middle East--one pitting Sunni nations like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan against Iran and its proxies (Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas). Fearing domination and even religious conversion by a nuclear-armed Shia Iran--"the Persians are trying to devour the Arab states," Mubarak warned in December--the Sunnis are keen to assist America's containment of Tehran.

In Egypt's case, that means help with the peace process and Iran. On the former, Mubarak is keeping the squeeze on Hamas at the Gaza border--furthering the U.S. and Israeli goal of proving that Hamas cannot successfully govern on its own--while at the same time working to mediate a deal between Hamas and Fatah in the name of a workable Palestinian government. Mubarak also visited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month to press the Obama position that a two-state solution is a sine qua non of peace. And, when it comes to Iran, Mubarak is helping the Obama team unify Sunni Arab opposition to Iran's nuclear program and provide political cover for U.S. pressure on the Iranian regime. (Obama's Iran point man, Dennis Ross, was in Cairo last month to strategize with the Egyptian leader.)

All of which helps to explain why Obama, unlike his predecessor, isn't much interested in alienating Mubarak. Obama has cut U.S. funding for democracy promotion in Egypt and will now send that money via the government, rather than directly to independent groups. In Cairo, Obama said nothing about Mubarak's record of repression. Asked about that in March, Hillary Clinton blithely dismissed concerns, saying, "we all have room for improvement." "There is a new attitude here" between the United States and Egypt, says Mohamed Kamal, a Cairo University political science professor and influential member of Mubarak's National Democratic Party. "The two countries are opening a new page."

Perhaps sensing that Egypt's enmity is an obstacle to its ambitions, Iran has made some efforts to woo Egypt into its sphere of influence. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said he wants to open an Iranian embassy in Cairo, and, a few years ago, the Tehran city council changed the name of Islambouli street. But a sign bearing the shooter's name still stands at an entrance to the street, and the giant mural still towers overhead. And, last summer, Cairo was whipped into a new frenzy when Iranian television broadcast Assassination of a Pharaoh, a documentary that celebrates Sadat's murder, featuring, among other things, a slow-motion count of the bullets that Islambouli fired into the doomed president's body. In response, Egyptian police raided an Iranian TV station in Cairo, and Egypt cancelled a soccer match between the countries. It doesn't seem like Obama needs to worry that his crucial Arab ally is about to align with Tehran. The Shah certainly isn't going anywhere soon.

By Michael Crowley:
Reprinted with permission from The New Republic
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