Published June 14, 2012
CAIRO – Iran once saw the Arab Spring uprisings as a prime opportunity, hoping it would open the door for it to spread its influence in countries whose autocratic leaders long shunned Tehran's ruling clerics. But it is finding the new order no more welcoming. Egypt is a prime example.
Egypt has sporadically looked more friendly toward Iran since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak 16 months ago, and the rise of the Islamists here fueled the expectations of Tehran's clerical regime that it could make inroads.
Instead, it has been met with the deep mistrust felt by many in mainly Sunni Muslim Egypt toward non-Arab, Shiite-dominated Iran — as well as Cairo's reluctance to sacrifice good relations with Iran's rivals, the United States and the oil-rich Arab nations of the Gulf.
In a sign of the mistrust, Egyptian security and religious authorities have raised an alarm in recent weeks that Iran was trying to promote Shiism in the country.
That brought warnings from the Sunni Islamists that Iran had hoped would be friendly to their religious-based leadership.
"Iran must realize that if it wants good relations with an Egypt that will soon regain its strength, it must bear in mind that Egypt holds high the banner of the Sunni faith," said Mohammed el-Sagheer, a lawmaker from the hard-line Gamaa Islamiya.
"Spreading Shiism in Egypt is not an issue of sectarian conflict, it is a question of national security."
Iran has also invited families of nearly 900 protesters killed during last year's uprising to honor them in Tehran, but most relatives declined the offer, with only a group of 27 agreeing to make the trip. They flew to Iran last week.
In a wider context, the new order in the Arab world is not going Tehran's way and it could even erode its influence and leave it more isolated.
"Arab Spring revolts have been a disaster for Iran," said Michael W. Hanna, a Middle East expert from New York's Century Foundation. "It wants to ride those revolts as an extension of its own revolution back in 1979, but it is not happening."
Instead, Iran has been losing its allure as an alternative model to authoritarian Arab regimes that fell victim to popular uprisings like Mubarak's, Moammar Gadhafi's in Libya or Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Ominously for Iran, it faces the possibility of the fall of its top Arab ally, the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad, and its replacement by Sunni rule.
The Assad dynasty — which belongs to the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiism — has maintained close ties with Tehran for more than 30 years. But it is now struggling to contain an uprising dominated by Syria's Sunni majority.
The fall of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who succeeded his father in 2000, would almost certainly weaken Hezbollah, Tehran's chief ally in Lebanon and a sworn enemy of Israel.
Iran has already seen one friend distance itself over the Syria turmoil. The leadership of the Palestinian militant Hamas group left its Damascus headquarters and relocated to Qatar which, together with Saudi Arabia, is calling for the arming of Syrian rebels.
For the past decade, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have been the cornerstones of the anti-Iran faction in the Middle East, trying to roll back its rising fortunes, which peaked with the ascent to power by Iraq's Shiites in 2003 and Hezbollah's 2006 war against Israel, a fight that elevated the Shiite group and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, to heroic status in the mostly Sunni Arab world.
Relations between Cairo and Tehran were tense throughout the 29-year rule of Mubarak, whose regime accused Iran of supporting homegrown militant Islamist groups and involvement in a 1995 assassination attempt against the ousted leader.
More recently, the two regional powerhouses quarreled publicly over Iran's alleged meddling in Iraq and over its support for Hezbollah and Hamas.
Moreover, Egypt traditionally sees itself as the guardian of Islam's dominant Sunni branch and as a protector of Arab culture against foreign influence, including that of Persian Iran.
Relations, however, appeared to be heading for a major breakthrough following Mubarak's ouster on Feb. 11, 2011, with Cairo approving an Iranian request for two naval ships to transit the Suez Canal on their way to Syria. The two vessels sailed through the canal in late February 2011, the first ones to do so since the Islamic Revolution.
In the following month, Egypt's then-Foreign Minister Nabil Elarabi declared Iran was no longer an "enemy state," a comment the Iranians seized on to express their wish to see closer relations with Egypt.
The signs of a rapprochement worried the United States and Saudi Arabia, allied nations whose largesse and goodwill have for decades been at the heart of Egypt's foreign policy goals.
Iranian public statements did not ease their concerns.
"A new Middle East is emerging based on Islam ... based on religious democracy," a hardline cleric, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, said last year during a Friday prayer sermon.
Many Iranian clerics and top officials described Arab Spring uprisings as an indication that "an Islamic Middle East is taking shape" and that Egypt's own revolt was a replay of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled a pro-Western monarch and brought Islamists to power, much like what has happened in Egypt.
But even as Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood and others have gained a stronger political role in Egypt with their domination of parliament, they have proven little more sympathetic to Iran. And Egypt's military rulers — all veterans of the Mubarak era and close friends of the U.S. military establishment — show little sign of changing their traditional wariness of Tehran.
Last month, Egyptian security forces raided the Cairo offices of Iran's Arabic-language state television channel, Al-Alam, seizing equipment and closing it down. Police said the station did not have a license. A Cairo-based Iranian diplomat was detained and expelled in May last year on suspicion that he tried to set up spy rings in Egypt and the Gulf countries.
That was followed by a flurry of media reports that Shiite places of worship known as Husseinyahs were springing up across the country.
The leader of Al-Azhar, the world's foremost seat of Sunni learning, responded sharply.
Grand Imam Sheik Ahmed al-Tayeb said that while Al-Azhar is not an enemy of any Muslim nation, "it declares its categorical and decisive rejection of all attempts to build places of worship that are not simply called mosques that will incite sectarianism."
Al-Tayeb summoned Iran's top diplomat in Cairo to complain about the Husseinyahs in an intensely publicized meeting. Photographs of a grim-faced al-Tayeb made front pages the next day along with reports that the diplomat gave him assurances that his country had nothing to do with the construction of the Husseinyahs.
Security officials said authorities were investigating a plan to spread "Iranian Shiism" by 350 Shiite activists who have been able to convert thousands of Sunnis to their faith. They said two Husseiniyahs were already operational, one in the Nile Delta town of Tanta and the other in the October 6 district west of Cairo.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The Sunni-Shiite divide explains in part Egypt's resistance. But there are key strategic issues as well.
With a struggling economy, Egypt is in dire need of financial help from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab nations whose relations with Tehran are fraught with tensions over its disputed nuclear program, its perceived support for the majority Shiites in Sunni-ruled Bahrain and occupation of three Gulf islands claimed by the United Arab Emirates.
Egypt is also the recipient of some $1.5 billion in annual U.S. military and economic aid and is dependent on Washington's support to secure loans from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
Egypt and Iran "are competitors and rivals in the region," said Middle East expert Samer S. Shehata of Georgetown University. "The natural state of affairs is not for Iran and Egypt to be allies. Egypt's strategic interests are different from Iran's."