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The Ice Melts In Iran's Cold War With Egypt

The ghost of Sadat assassin Khalid Islambouli -- seen here on a giant mural in central Tehran -- is close to being laid to rest.
The 2,400 kilometers or so separating Cairo from Tehran might have been enough to keep relations at arm's length. But for the past three decades, the realities of geography dividing Egypt and Iran have been stretched into a yawning chasm by the shadow of one Khalid Islambouli.

The Islamist army officer who assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981 in revenge for signing the Camp David Accords with Israel has long stood as a symbol of the political and ideological divide between the two countries. Executed along with three co-conspirators for the crime the following year, Islambouli acquired pariah status in Egypt -- an embodiment of the perils lurking behind Islamic radicalism.

In Iran, by contrast, he is renowned as a hero and a martyr, a privilege reflected in a massive mural painting in central Tehran. One of the capital's most prestigious streets also bears his name, in what Egyptian officials have regarded as a provocation and a block to restoring long-severed diplomatic ties.

Now, however, the ghost of Islambouli is close to being laid to rest.

'Expansion Of Ties'

In what may be a blow to the interests of Israel and the United States, Egypt has declared itself ready to re-establish links with Tehran in the wake of February's overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak, who saw Iran's Islamic regime as a bitter foe.

The new Egyptian foreign minister, Nabil Al-Arabi, signaled a thaw on March 30 when he voiced hopes for an "expansion of ties" with Iran. His comments came a month after Egypt -- in the wake of Mubarak's departure -- set Western alarm bells ringing by allowing Iranian naval ships to sail through the Suez Canal for the first time in 30 years.

Reasons to be wary were compounded this month by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry's spokesman, Mehna Bakhoum, who declared: "We are prepared to take a different view of Iran. The former regime used to see Iran as an enemy, but we don't."

The warm words have been reciprocated by Tehran, where the Foreign Ministry has confirmed it is preparing to appoint its first ambassador to Cairo since links were cut in 1979.

The contrast could hardly be greater with the tone set by Mubarak who, according to a U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, told Senator John Kerry that the Iranians "are big fat liars and justify their lies because they believe it is for a higher purpose."

Stuff Of Nightmares

For the United States and Israel especially, the prospect of glacial relations between Iran and Egypt being replaced by a close alliance is the stuff of nightmares.

Even the prospect of an Iranian embassy in Cairo is enough to set Israeli teeth on edge, according to Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born commentator based in Israel with the Middle East Economic and Political Analysis Company.

"For Israel, any country in this region, especially one that has borders with it, having a relationship with Iran is not good," Javedanfar says. "Any extra Iranian boots on the ground is a sign of concern for Israel because, as far as the Israeli government sees it, perhaps they could use their influence to encourage the public to turn even more against Israel, or perhaps to use the territory of that country to gather intelligence against Israel or even, in the case of an attack against Iran's nuclear installations, perhaps that territory could be used to attack Israeli targets."

Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Al-Arabi: "An expansion of ties" with Iran

A more specific Israeli grievance is Arabi's stated intention to repair Mubarak's hostile relations with Hamas, the Islamist organization that runs Gaza and which has strong backing from Iran.

Yet, says Javedanfar, such a move is likely to develop into a new source of competition between Iran and Egypt as the Egyptian leadership tries to wean Hamas off its dependence on Tehran.

"I think Egypt is going to change its attitude and its relationship with Hamas. There's going to be an improvement," Javedanfar says. "That will, of course, please the Iranians. However, I don't see the Egyptians backing Iran's line when it comes to Hamas because that could damage the relationship with the United States, which is also important for them.

"And I think somewhere along the line, the Egyptians are going to also compete with Iran because having influence over Hamas gives them leverage. And I don't see the Egyptians handing over that leverage to the Islamic Republic of Iran."

Western Umbrella

Moreover, analysts say, fears of a new Iranian-Egyptian alliance are unfounded.

Mustafa al-Labbad, director of the Cairo-based Center for Regional and Strategic Studies, says "opening a new page" with Iran would not alter Egypt's other relationships, particularly those with Arab Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia, which are highly suspicious of Tehran's intentions.

Nor are renewed ties likely to result in a strategic alliance.

"No, the political systems in both countries are very much different," Labbad says. "Egypt is under the Western umbrella and [with] Iran, this is not the case. There is contradiction in the national interests between Egypt and Iran in Iraq and in the Persian Gulf. So it would be a normal relationship at the maximum, but not a strategic alliance. A strategic alliance needs more from both parties, and I don't think the circumstances are allowing for such a strategic alliance."

Egypt's commitment to the Camp David Accords, the lynchpin of its ties with the West, is also unlikely to be challenged, Labbad says, despite Iran's unflinching hostility toward the Jewish state.

"I don't think relations between Israel and Egypt will be affected. Nobody in Egypt is questioning the Camp David treaty and nobody in Egypt is willing to have tension with Israel," Labbad says. "Even the Muslim Brothers, if they will come to be a majority in the next Egyptian parliament, they are not capable and they are not willing even to challenge this treaty."

Yet whatever the limitations, a new relationship would be a real gain for Iran's theocratic system, which would stand to gain more than the new regime in Cairo, Javedanfar says.

"If you look at the profit-and-loss accounts of both countries -- what are the profit and losses for Iran to form relations with Egypt; what are the profit and losses for Egypt to form relations with Iran? The country that comes up with the healthier balance sheet is Iran, especially because now Iran is more isolated in the region, so improvement in relations with Egypt will come at a very crucial time for Iran.

"In terms of Iran's efforts to flex its muscles in the region, having an embassy in Cairo, plus sending warships through the Suez Canal, will help its ambitions to project its power in the region."