President Raisi's death could set back normalisation of relations between Iran and Egypt

Relations cooled off before the Iranian leader's death with the process stalling over regional tensions, according to sources

Egypt's President Abdel Fattah El Sisi (left) and the late Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi. Reuters
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The death of Iran's president and his foreign minister in Sunday’s helicopter crash could significantly set back the process of normalising relations between Tehran and Cairo and ending decades of tension, sources have told The National.

They said relations between the two regional powerhouses had cooled off before President Ebrahim Raisi's death, with the normalisation process stalling, mostly over Iran’s seeming reluctance to persuade its Houthi allies in Yemen to halt attacks on Red Sea shipping.

The attacks, carried out to show solidarity with the Palestinians in the war between Israel and Iranian-backed Hamas in Gaza, have cost Egypt 60 per cent of its revenue from the Suez Canal so far this year, a significant blow to a country whose economy is struggling to recover from its deepest crisis in living memory.

“President Raisi was the architect of and driving force behind the normalisation of relations with Egypt,” said one of the sources, who have direct knowledge of the process.

“His death sets those relations back several steps given the volatility of the whole region.”

Egypt has also been under significant pressure from the US, Cairo’s chief ally and foreign benefactor, not to forge close ties with Tehran. Iran is Washington’s archfoe whose regional ambitions and support for non-state players like Hezbollah and the Houthis are widely seen as disruptive to regional stability, according to the sources.

The process of normalising relations between Cairo and Tehran was launched last year, with mid-ranking diplomats and intelligence officials meeting behind closed doors in Baghdad to iron out differences and contentious points.

The talks shifted to Oman, which has a history of mediating between Iran and foreign nations, including the US.

In May 2023, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, approved the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Egypt. He said he would “welcome” the restoration of ties with Egypt during a meeting with the visiting Sultan of Oman, Haitham bin Tariq.

However, unlike Egypt’s successful normalisation of relations with former foe Turkey, the Cairo-Tehran efforts never came to full fruition, although the two nations' foreign ministers have frequently held talks over the past year both in person and on the phone.

The two Muslim nations had been expected to exchange ambassadors before the end of 2022, but that step was never taken. Moreover, both have yet to finalise the ground rules for key aspects of their relations, like tourism, trade and technology co-operation.

Some analysts noted that Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry's attendance of Mr Raisi's funeral – rather than President Abdel Fattah El Sisi or Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouly- is perhaps a reflection of the current state of relations between the two nations.

Relations between Iran and Egypt had been fraught with distrust and tension since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. Relations suffered more when the then Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat welcomed the deposed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to Egypt and a year later allowed his burial in Cairo.

There was a relative thaw after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and the election of Mohammed Morsi a year later, a member of the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood. Mr Morsi briefly allowed Iranians to visit religious shrines in 2012.

Mr Morsi was removed from power in 2013 and relations with Tehran cooled after Mr El Sisi took office the following year.

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

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

Egyptian officials believe on the other hand that normalised relations with Iran would secure Tehran's goodwill in relation to Cairo's efforts to forge closer economic and commercial ties with countries where Tehran wields considerable influence, like Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

Egypt is also known to be eyeing Iranian-made attack drones as possible additions to its military arsenal. It may also be looking for compensation, possibly in the form of oil and gas, for the heavy losses it has incurred as a result of the Red Sea attacks on shipping by Tehran’s Houthi allies, according to the sources.

Updated: May 22, 2024, 4:30 PM