Egypt and Iran pursue normalisation in Baghdad talks

Talks between diplomats and intelligence officials from Tehran and Cairo may pave the way for an Egyptian-Iranian summit

Negotiators are working towards a meeting between Egypt's President Abdel Fattah El Sisi and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi. Reuters
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Egypt and Iran have been holding talks in Iraq's capital Baghdad since March to discuss normalising relations between the two regional powerhouses, Egyptian and Iraqi officials told The National.

The latest round of discussions began at the weekend, Egyptian officials said, although it is not clear how much progress has been made so far.

The talks have also touched on reducing tension in places where Iran wields significant influence, such as Yemen, Lebanon and Syria, by supporting allied governments or armed groups, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the negotiations have not been made public.

The two sides are also exploring the possibility of a meeting between Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi and Iranian leader Ebrahim Raisi, they said.

The talks in Baghdad appear to be part of a continuing regional realignment in which Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to restore diplomatic relations severed in 2016.

Egypt and Turkey, at odds for a decade, have also been working to normalise relations.

The eight-year war in Yemen, where Iran backs the Houthis against the internationally recognised government supported by a Saudi-led military coalition, has significantly quietened down amid diplomatic moves to end the conflict.

Syria, where Iran and the Tehran-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah have significant influence, was readmitted to the Arab League on Sunday, more than a decade after it was thrown out of the Cairo-based group over its violent handling of anti-government protests in 2011.

In Baghdad, an Iraqi diplomat told The National that two rounds of low-level talks between Egyptian and Iranian officials were held in Baghdad in March and April this year.

“Both sides have welcomed Iraq’s efforts to mediate,” said the diplomat.

“Both sides are putting out feelers and they are willing to move forward. There is no headway until now.”

News of the secret negotiations has emerged two months after Iran said it wanted to improve ties with Egypt.

"Egypt is an important country in the region and what the region needs is synergy between Iran and Egypt, and we believe in taking new steps to improve our relations,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said in March, just days after Tehran and Riyadh said they agreed to resume diplomatic relations.

Egypt's presidency and Foreign Ministry had welcomed the Saudi-Iranian agreement, saying they hoped it would result in defusing regional tensions.

Tehran's relations with Cairo, a close US ally that has close ties with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations, have been fraught since the ousting of Iran's shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The shah died in 1980 in Egypt, where he is buried with other members of his family.

Relations deteriorated when Iran's clerical government named a Tehran street after Khaled Al Islambouli, an Egyptian army officer who led a team of assassins that killed Mr Sadat during a 1981 military parade in Cairo. Repeated requests by Cairo to remove his name were denied.

More recently, relations have been tense over what Cairo sees as the meddling of Iran in the internal affairs of Arab nations such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

In a thinly veiled reference to Iran, Mr El Sisi's government has repeatedly declared Egypt's willingness to come to the aid of its Gulf Arab allies and benefactors if they faced an external threat.

Unlike Saudi Arabia, which closed its embassy in Tehran in 2016, Egypt has maintained diplomatic representation in Iran since the Islamic revolution.

However, it has left only a charge d'affaires running its mission in Tehran. Iran has a functioning embassy in Cairo led by a senior diplomat.

Egyptian officials familiar with Cairo's relations with Iran say the two countries have maintained sporadic contact over the years.

Like Saudi Arabia, Egypt is a regional heavyweight. While the kingdom is home to Islam's holiest shrines, Cairo's 1,000-year-old Al Azhar Mosque is considered the world's primary seat of Sunni Islam learning.

Egypt is also the most populous Arab state, with more than 104 million people.

Sinan Mahmoud reported from Baghdad

Updated: May 08, 2023, 6:49 PM