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101, April 20, 2009 Kam, Ephraim The direct target of the Egyptian regime’s attacks in the past two weeks is Hizbollah and its terror arm in Egypt. However, the Egyptians themselves do not conceal the fact that in their view Hizbollah is merely the tool, and that their main concern is the driving force behind the organization – Iran. The details of the episode are new; the phenomenon itself is not new. Every few years overt tension emerges between Egypt and Iran, where it is usually Egypt that accuses the Iranian regime, and its proxies, of operating terror and acts of subversion on its territory, and in other Arab states, and of threatening regional stability. The backdrop to the flawed relations between Egypt and Iran is the nature and character of the fundamentalist regime in Tehran which initially initiated the rift with Egypt: immediately after the revolution the new regime annulled the close relations that had existed between the Shah’s regime and Egypt. Iran even cut diplomatic ties with Egypt, in response to the signing of the peace treaty with Israel, and Egypt’s hosting of the exiled Shah in Cairo after he left Iran. In the intervening thirty years numerous attempts were made to renew and improve relations between the two countries, usually on Iran’s initiative, but to date Egypt has refused to renew diplomatic ties with the Iranian regime as long as the regime does not end its intervention in the internal affairs of Arab countries. Since then, there have been a number of flashpoints between Egypt and Iran: • Both countries have a wide circle of interests, and they are consistently working to solidify their position as leading and influential countries in the Middle East, and beyond. This striving for hegemony naturally generates friction, disputes and hostility between the two regimes. • Egypt believes that the Iranian regime is looking to export the Islamic revolution to Muslim countries, including to Egypt, and to this end uses subversive means in these countries. At the time, Egypt openly accused Iran of aiding the wave of Islamic terror in Egypt in the 1990s. • The Egyptians were particularly concerned about the Iranian move into Sudan, which, following the military coup there in 1989, included Muslim religious clerics in its leadership. The extensive cooperation that developed between Iran and Sudan in the 1990s turned the latter into a significant Iranian base in Egypt’s backyard. While this cooperation has decreased since the end of the 1990s, following American and Egyptian pressure on Sudan, the unstable internal situation has still left plenty of room for Iranian and terror elements to operate there. • Egypt and Iran were divided over central components of their regional policy: Egypt supported Iraq during its war with Iran in the 1980s, while Iran opposed Egypt’s close relationship with the United States, and its peace ties with Israel. In the last decade the Egyptian regime sees the Iranian threat as increasing, for two reasons. On the one hand, Egypt considers Iran’s efforts to obtain nuclear arms a serious threat. In Egyptian eyes, nuclear arms in Iranian hands would strengthen its position as a leading regional power and as the cornerstone of the radical camp, would encourage it to follow aggressive policies, would increase the pressure on Arab states to follow the Iranian line, would lead Egypt to a problematic junction with regard to the nuclear issue and would damage its regional standing. At the same time, the strengthening of the Shiite-radical axis in recent years, following the rise of the Shiite sector in Iraq and in Lebanon, the Iranian penetration into the Palestinian arena, and the strengthening of
Iran’s regional influence in the face of the United States’ weakness is also a cause of concern for Egypt. The case of Qatar – a usually moderate state that also had established ties with Israel – which recently decided to join Iran and the radical camp, also worries Egypt, as a precedent for what is liable to happen among Gulf States following Iranian pressure. It is no wonder that the Egyptian minister of defense, as far back as 1992, defined the Iranian threat as more serious than the threat from Israel. Since then, the Iranian threat has, in Egyptian eyes, increased. Egypt’s view of the strengthening of Hezbollah and Hamas in recent years is connected to this. Egypt views these two Islamic organizations as Iranian strongholds on the Mediterranean coastline. Hizbollah is seen by Egypt as a threat for a number of reasons: it is a frontline organization for Iran in all senses and does Tehran’s bidding; its military capabilities, its militant attitude and its proxies that are active in different countries; the danger that it generates for the Lebanese system; and Nasrallah’s popularity on the Arab street, which is perceived as the antithesis of the moderate Arab approach. Hamas presents Egypt with additional dangers, some of which are even more serious: it is affiliated with “the Muslim Brotherhood”; it creates an outpost subject to the influence of Iran on Egypt’s border, and in an area where there is a security vacuum; it is a considerable obstacle to the progress of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and the violent clashes between it and Israel are liable to incite unrest in Egypt, out of support for the Palestinians. For these reasons the Egyptian regime attacked the two organizations during their confrontations with Israel – during the Second Lebanon War and during Operation Cast Lead – and accused them of being responsible for the deterioration in the situation. One could read between the lines that Egypt had an interest for Israel to hit the organizations hard, and to weaken them. The exposure of Hezbollah’s deployment in Egypt, and the episode of arms smuggling via Sudan and Sinai into the Gaza Strip, demonstrated to the Egyptian regime the risks posed to its security by the triangle of Iran – Hizbollah – Hamas. The activities affront Egyptian sovereignty and the honor of the Egyptian regime, present a threat to the central administration and create vacuums in its control. There is already such a vacuum in Sinai, dangerously close to the Gaza Strip, and in the past there were such vacuums in Upper Egypt and in the poor neighborhoods of Cairo, which acted as a breeding ground for extremist Islamic terror organizations. The Egyptian regime is apparently concerned that the kind of activity that came to light will arouse and activate terror cells in Egypt, while elements associated with Iran are active to the north and south of the country – in the Gaza Strip and in Sudan. It was convenient for Egypt to attack Iran and its proxies at a time when tension between Iran and the Gulf States has recently increased, following a statement by a senior Iranian official saying that Bahrain was an Iranian district, and after Morocco cut its diplomatic ties with Iran. From Israel’s point of view, the Egyptian position is of twofold importance. It is important for Israel that Egypt take significant steps against terror elements which are looking primarily to harm Israel – both within Egypt and from the Gaza Strip. It is also important, from Israel’s point of view, that a major Arab element came out openly – and not for the first time – against the radical triangle of Iran, Hizbollah and Hamas, and presented it as an opponent and a threat to the moderate Arabic camp. Nevertheless, despite the common interest of Israel and Egypt in blocking the radical triangle, it is difficult to expect open cooperation between them against it. One may assume that Egypt will be willing to use clandestine Israeli intelligence support in acting against it, but would prefer to act alone, or within an inter-Arab framework, due to its sensitivity to cooperation with Israel, which would attract internal and inter-Arabic criticism.
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