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The Impact of the Iranian Revolution on Egypt’s Foreign Policy
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Introduction

Egypt and Iran have been two major – if not the major – actors in the international politics of the Middle East in the second half of the twentieth century. Besides their strategic location, rich historical tradition, and size, both countries have considered themselves as the regional leader and have competed for regional influence. Egypt and Iran have both regularly “promoted ideology as a fundamental component of foreign policy and have used ideology as a strategic, rhetorical tool to undermine the political stability of [each other’s] regimes” (Rubin, 2014, p. 42). After a 1952 coup brought the pan-Arab, anti-colonialist Gamal Abdel Nasser to power in Egypt, for example, the Egyptian regime challenged Iran’s cooperation with the United States and Israel, leading to a ‘cold war’ between the two countries. Relations warmed up considerably during the 1970s and the two countries developed a strong strategic alliance, as Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat broke with Nasser’s legacies, opened up to the West, and made a peace initiative to Israel. This cordiality, however, changed into outright hostility overnight following the Iranian Revolution in 1979 (Shama, 2014, p. 118; Bayat & Baktriari, 2002, p. 305-306).

The Iranian Revolution was one of the most important events in modern Middle Eastern history, as it transformed interstate relations and pressured state-society relations in the region. In response to the threats posed by Iran’s attempts to export its revolution, Egypt intensified its alliance with the U.S. and radically changed its foreign policy in the Middle East, supporting Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War that broke out in 1980 and reconciling with most of the Arab world (Rubin, 2014, p. 46-51). This paper discusses the impact of the Iranian Revolution on the foreign policy of Egypt. It first examines Egypt-Iran relations before 1979. Then, it investigates the implications of the Iranian Revolution for Egypt, after which it discusses the way Egypt’s foreign policy changed during the 1980s with reference to this revolution. Finally, it analyses why Egypt only started to perceive Iran as a threat after the Iranian Revolution, even though the country’s military power projection capabilities in fact decreased in the years following the revolution. The Iranian Revolution significantly impacted Egypt’s foreign policy, as the country intensified its alliance with the U.S., reconciled with and was reintegrated in the Arab world, and supported  Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War in response to the threat posed by the ideational power projection of the newly established Islamic Republic of Iran.

Relations before the Iranian Revolution

Relations between Egypt and Iran were cordial during the 1940s, following Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s marriage to Fawziya, King Faruq’s sister, in 1939. Both countries were nationalist monarchies that strongly valued their ancient past as cradles of civilisation. During the early 1950s, however, Egypt and Iran both underwent significant political change. In Egypt, the Free Officers coup of 1952 brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power, and his regime emphasised pan-Arabism and anti-colonialism. While the democratically elected Iranian prime minister Mosaddegh also adopted an anti-colonial stance, nationalising the British holdings in the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (and inspiring Nasser to nationalise the Suez Canal in 1956), a CIA-backed coup in 1953 removed him from power. In the years that followed, Iran moved in the opposite direction to Nasser’s Egypt, getting increasingly close to the West and joining military alliances with the United States and the United Kingdom (Bayat & Baktiari, 2002, p. 305-306; Rubin, 2014, p. 43).

This signalled the beginning of a ‘cold war’ between Egypt and Iran. Besides competition over influence in the Gulf, each side was suspicious and critical of the other: while the Shah saw Nasser as an “instrument of Soviet expansionism” (Bayat & Baktriari, 2002, p. 306), Nasser strongly criticised Iran’s alignment with the West, and, even more importantly, Israel. In fact, Egypt cut ties with Iran in 1960, following the Shah’s de facto recognition of the state of Israel. Egypt subsequently became increasingly isolated in the region, as the conservative Arab Gulf states, warry of Egypt’s involvement in the North Yemen Civil War and aspirations in the Gulf, drew closer to status quo power Iran. After the disastrous defeat against Israel in 1967, however, Nasser reconsidered Egypt’s ambitions in the Gulf, and relations with Iran were resumed in August 1970, a month before Nasser’s death (Rubin, 2014, p. 43; Bayat & Baktiari, 2002, p. 306-307).

Under Anwar al-Sadat, relations between Egypt and Iran improved significantly, ushering into a decade of diplomatic, economic, and political cooperation. Egypt’s relations with the U.S. improved after Sadat steered Egypt away from the Soviet Union and expelled Soviet military personnel, and Egypt and Iran formed two important components in the U.S.’s ‘Twin Pillars’ policy, which became the country’s foundation of security in the Middle East in the 1970s. Besides Egypt and Iran’s shared alliance with the U.S., bilateral relations flourished during this decade. The Iranian regime provided billions of dollars of loans and grants to Egypt for projects involving the reconstruction of Port Said, the widening of the Suez Canal, and several joint industrial and agricultural projects. Moreover, Iran strongly supported Sadat’s unpopular peace initiative toward Israel, and Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi became the second foreign leader to express support for the Camp David Accords. In addition to their strategic alliance, Sadat and Mohammed Reza enjoyed a good personal relationship (Bayat & Baktriari, 2002, p. 307; Rubin, 2014, p. 44).

Implications of the Iranian Revolution for Egypt

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 sent shockwaves throughout the Middle East and completely transformed Egyptian-Iranian relations. The regime of the newly established Islamic Republic was in many ways a polar opposite of the Pahlavi regime and followed a radically different course in its foreign policy. While Iran had been a Western-oriented, secular, nationalist monarchy that closely cooperated with Israel and the U.S., “a status quo power with a vested interest in regional stability,” it was now an anti-Western, anti-Zionist, theocratic republic that actively called for the destruction of Israel and the overthrow of monarchies and secular states across the region, and its new regime “embarked on activist, adventurous, and in some instances hostile, policies and aimed at spreading its message among oppressed Muslims worldwide” (Shama, 2014, p. 117). The new Iranian regime clearly expressed its opposition to Sadat’s government, calling’s its policies un-Islamic, pro-imperialist, and pro-Zionist, and quickly cut ties with Egypt over its peace treaty with Israel. To Iran’s anger, Sadat warmly welcomed the fugitive Shah and granted him political asylum (Bayat & Baktriari, 2002, p. 307; Rubin, 2014, p. 47-48).

Besides the direct threat that the Islamic Republic itself posed for Egypt, its successful revolutionary Islamism and attempts to export its revolution across the region constituted an even bigger danger, inspiring several segments of Egypt’s disillusioned population and severely undermining the country’s internal stability. Iran’s Shia clerics, who were now effectively in power, launched a “war of takfir” against the Sadat regime, undermining its legitimacy through religious symbolism (Rubin, 2014, p. 47). Ayatollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader, called Sadat a pharaoh (the pharaohs of ancient Egypt are considered tyrants and despots in Islam), accused him of acting against the umma by associating with the West and making peace with the Zionist entity, and, most importantly, designated him a kafir (disbeliever) and called for his death. Thus, Khomeini’s rhetoric questioned the foundational legitimacy of the Egyptian state and mobilised religious sentiment against Sadat (Rubin, 2014, p. 47-48; Rogan, 2018, p. 501).

The Egyptian regime had reason to fear that these notions would inspire large segments of the population and undermine the country’s internal stability. The Iranian Revolution happened at a time when Sadat’s popularity was at an all-time low in Egypt after his breaking with Nasserist legacies. Not only had he opened the door to Western economic, political, and cultural influence (infitah), cut subsidies for bread and other staples in an effort to reduce government spending and fulfil the conditions of accepting International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans, he had initiated a peace process with Israel and signed the Camp David Accords. Moreover, the Islamist camp, Sadat’s former allies, had already been frustrated by Sadat’s failure to implement shari`a law as he had promised, and certainly provided fertile soil for Iran’s religious symbolism (Rubin, 2014, p. 48-49; Bayat & Baktriari, 2002, p. 307-309).

However, not only the Islamists were inspired by Iran’s revolution. The political contrast between Iran’s anti-U.S. and anti-Zionist message and Sadat’s signing of the Camp David Accords was striking to the average Egyptian, and the Iranian Revolution “appeared to many Egyptians… as a genuine response of a Muslim nation to imperialist aggression in the region” (Bayat & Baktriari, 2002, p. 308-309). Moreover, while “the message of revolutionary Islam entered universities, nongovernmental mosques, and popular sentiment” (Bayat & Baktriari, 2002, p. 311) and political Islamic groups looked at Iran as an example, leftist intellectuals analysed the Iranian Revolution in structuralist Marxist language, considering its successful mass mobilisation and popular confrontation with the authorities as an inspiration. Iran’s new regime had the sympathy of Egyptian public opinion, and pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini started to appear in cities and villages across the country (Wehrey, Thaler, et al., p. 129-130; Bayat & Baktriari, 2002, p. 308-312).

While Islamism in Egypt has its own internal causes and has followed its own dynamics, the Iranian Revolution significantly influenced its development and interaction with the Egyptian government, legitimising and encouraging Islamist activism, resistance, and, indeed, violence. On 6 October, 1981, members of an Islamist organisation, who had infiltrated the Egyptian military, assassinated Sadat while he was reviewing a military parade, with one of the assassins, Khalid al-Islambuli, shouting “I am Khalid al-Islambuli, I have killed Pharaoh, and I do not fear death” (Kepel, 1985, p. 192). Khomeini unambiguously approved of the attack, naming a street in Tehran after Sadat’s assassin and commissioning a postal stamp in his honour (Rogan, 2018, p. 500-501; Rubin, 2014, p. 49). Thus, Egypt’s ‘Islamic revival’ of the 1970s and 1980s certainly had a political dimension (Abdo, 2002, pp. 7-8; Rock-Singer, 2019, pp. 26-29; Rahnama, 1994, p. 178-179), and throughout the 1980s, “Islamist groups continued to wage an often violent campaign against the Egyptian government in their ongoing bid to turn the secular nationalist Arab Republic of Egypt into the Islamic Republic of Egypt” (Rogan, 2018, p. 502-503). The Iranian government regarded the ‘Islamist revival’ in Egypt as a part of an Islamic revolutionary wave it had started in the region, and strongly condemned Egypt’s persecution of Islamists (Bayat & Baktriari, 2002, p. 313).

Despite the early Egyptian enthusiasm for the Iranian Revolution, it became significantly less popular among the general Egyptian public in the early 1980s, after several revolutionary court-ordered executions, relentless violence against leftist and liberal forces, and repression of the Kurdish autonomy movement in Iran. Likewise, the Muslims Brotherhood, Egypt’s main Islamist organisation, which had initially supported and hailed the Iranian Revolution as an expression of Islam’s victory in a political struggle, eventually changed its stance. Besides the fact that Iran had allied itself with the Syrian Ba`ath regime and its president Hafiz al-Asad, which had banned the Muslim Brotherhood and persecuted its members in Syria, the Iranian Revolution had clearly been inspired by Shi`a Islam, and the Iranian regime increasingly emphasised this Shi`a identity. Moreover, Iran’s revolutionary Islam offered an alternative model for Islamist resistance against pro-West, secular governments to the Brotherhood’s gradualist strategy, and the Islamic Republic thus became a rival rather than an ally to the Muslim Brotherhood (Bayat & Baktriari, 309-313).

Nevertheless, Iran’s Islamist soft power continued to pose a genuine threat to the Egyptian regime. Literature on the Iranian Revolution was censored, and both al-Azhar University and the Egyptian government promoted the narrative of a Shi`a conspiracy, attempting to delegitimise the Iranian regime’s Islamic claims. Indeed, one of the main ways through which Sadat and his successor Mubarak tried to contain the impact of the Iranian Revolution was counter-framing, portraying Khomeini and his government as radical extremists, and defending their own policies, such as the decision to grant asylum to the Shah, in terms of moderate, authentic Islamic values. Moreover, the Egyptian regime worked to depict Iran’s revolutionary Islamism as a foreign, imported ideology, undermining the credibility of its source. Thus, it highlighted the non-Sunni and non-Arab origin of Khomeini’s Islam, and increased the number of state-funded mosques and state-trained clerics to combat its allure (Rubin, 2014, p. 49-50; Bayat & Baktriari, 2002, p. 312-313).

Egypt’s Foreign Policy after the Iranian Revolution

The Iranian Revolution completely altered the geopolitical environment in the region, and as such significantly impacted Egypt’s foreign policy. Besides the fact that the country’s relations with Iran went from cordial to virtually non-existent in the span of months, its cooperation with the United States intensified, and its relations with the Arab world improved considerably, culminating in its readmission to the Arab League. While relations with the U.S. had already significantly improved during the 1970s, the Egyptian regime “openly sought to assume the role of guardian of U.S. interests in the area” (Hinnebusch & Ehteshami, 2002, p. 106) after the fall of the Shah. In the early 1980s, Egypt became the second largest non-NATO recipient of U.S. military aid after Israel, and the country became a major non-NATO ally of the U.S. in 1989.

Furthermore, Egypt reoriented itself in the international arena of the Middle East, improving its ties with a number of Arab countries it had previously fallen out with, notably the Arab Gulf states and Iraq. While many Arab states had been hostile toward Egypt following its peace initiative toward Israel, the common threat posed by Iran’s aspirations to export its revolution and calls for the overthrow of monarchies and secular regimes across the region prompted them to reconsider their stance in order to isolate the Islamic Republic internationally. The Egyptian regime, in line with its strategy to portray the tensions with Iran as an Arab-Persian conflict, sought to return to the “old pan-Arab mode that had been virtually lost in the frenzy of the Camp David accords” (Bayat & Baktriari, 2002, p. 314), stirring up Arab popular opinion in its support and uniting the Arab states against Iran.

Accordingly, Egypt strongly supported Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War (First Gulf War, 1980-1988), a move that would have been unthinkable before the Iranian Revolution. Indeed, Iraq had broken diplomatic relations with Egypt in 1977 following Sadat’s peace initiative to Israel, and had even hosted a an Arab League summit the next year that strongly condemned the Camp David Accords and expelled Egypt from the organisation. Moreover, while Egypt had increasingly moved away from its Nasserist pan-Arabism following Nasser’s death, Iraq had been ruled by the pan-Arab Ba`ath Party since 1968, which lead to antagonism between the two countries. The threat posed by Iran, however, drew them together. While Iraq had already not been on good terms with Iran before 1979, its neighbour now posed an imminent danger. Besides its close geographical proximity, Iraq formed a logical target for the export of Iran’s revolution, given its significant Shi`a population. Saddam Hussein thus had reason to fear the Islamic Republic’s calls for the overthrow of secular regimes and stepped up his pan-Arab rhetoric. Moreover, Iraq had a growing need for Soviet-origin weapons, which Egypt could supply (Ashton & Gibson, 2013, p. 169). Given these circumstances, Egypt and Iraq made natural allies against the threats posed by the Islamic Republic. Thus, Egypt signed an arms deal with Iraq in 1980, declared its commitments to Iraq and the Arab Gulf states, and sent military reinforcements to Iraq. By 1982, up to 30,000 Egyptians were fighting in the Iraqi army, and Egypt had doubled its weapon supplies to Iraq (Rubin, 2014, p. 50).

Backing Iraq’s efforts against Iran also provided an opportunity for Egypt to be reintegrated into the Arab world, manoeuvring out of the isolation it had been in following its peace with Israel. Thus, in return for its support against Iran, Iraq “led the way in reintegrating Egypt into the Arab world” (Ashton & Gibson, 2013, p. 169), and Saddam Hussein repeatedly called for the restoration of Egypt’s ‘natural role’ as leader of the Arab world (Ruysdael, 2003, p. 328). Heeding this call, the Arab Gulf states (which created the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in 1981) looked at Egypt for a counterbalance to the major threat posed by the Islamic Republic (Shama, 2014, p. 117; Hinnebusch & Etheshami, 2002, p. 107). Besides the fact that Mubarak’s cooperation with the U.S. facilitated a reconciliation between Egypt and these moderate, pro-Western Arab Gulf monarchies, their relatively small size dictated a need for a partnership with heavyweight Egypt, and the latter’s claims to be the natural hub of the Arab world were thus partly acknowledged (Waterbury, 2014, p. 417; Hinnebusch & Etheshami, 2002, p. 107).

The United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) restored diplomatic relations with Egypt in 1987, and the relationship with Saudi Arabia, which had already warmed up significantly following Sadat’s expulsion of Soviet military personnel in 1972, improved even further (Niblock, 2006, p. 60). The U.S. supported these developments, recognising the importance of a united Arab world in order to contain the Iranian threat (Ashton & Gibson, 2013, p. 169). Thus, encouraged by the U.S., Jordan, Lebanon, and other Arab states also restored relations with Egypt, and by 1990, virtually all Arab countries had re-established diplomatic ties with Egypt (Bayat & Baktriari, 2002, p. 315-316). The country was readmitted to the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC, now Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) in 1984 and to the Arab League in 1989, and the Arab League headquarters were moved back to Cairo in 1990 (Rubin, 2014, p. 50-51; Ashton & Gibson, 2013, p. 169). Thus, the Egypt that had long led the fight to end U.S. influence in the region and that had been expelled from the Arab League just years earlier was now a major U.S. military ally and leader of the Arab world, hosting the Arab League’s headquarters.

Discussion

Although Egypt’s rapprochement with Iraq and the Arab Gulf states after the Iranian Revolution could be seen as a form of balancing against the threat posed by the Islamic Republic, it should be noted that realist explanations of this change in foreign policy are problematic, and that Egypt was responding to Iran’s ideational power projection capabilities rather than to a change in the balance of power in the Middle East’s international system. While Iran’s military and economic power grew exponentially and its power projection capabilities increased substantially during the 1970s, relations with Egypt improved; and while Iran was perceived as a major threat after its revolution, its military power in fact decreased during that time. In other words, threat perception declined while Iran’s military power projection capabilities increased, and threat perception increased while its military capabilities declined. Moreover, there were already indications of Iranian ambitions in Egyptian spheres of influence before 1979, as the Shah repeatedly expressed his desire to create a security perimeter in the Gulf. Yet, Egypt did not consider Iran as a threat before the overthrow of the Shah, and only started to take steps to contain Iran’s ambitions after the Iranian Revolution (Rubin, 2014, p. 41, 45-46).

There are several interrelated factors contributing to Egypt’s lack of threat perception of Iran before 1979. Pre-revolution Iran was, like Egypt, aligned to the United States in the fight against the Soviet Union and its regional proxies. Moreover, Iran was a status quo state, and it would have been against the Shah’s interest to disturb the regional order by deterring Egypt. Besides, Iran’s ambitions in the Gulf in no way endangered Egyptian sovereignty or internal stability. Since there were substantial domestic challenges for Egypt in the aftermath of two wars with Israel, Sadat primarily focused on consolidating political power domestically and regaining the Sinai Peninsula for Egypt, considering the Iranian aspirations in the Gulf as secondary concerns, if at all concerning. After the Shah strongly supported the Camp David Accords, in contrast to the alienated Arab world, Egypt had even less reason to fear Iran (Rubin, 2014, p. 46).

Post-revolution Iran, however, posed an imminent threat not only to Egypt’s interests in the region, but also to its sovereignty and domestic stability. While Iran under the Shah had been a pragmatic, pro-Western status quo power that had no interest in undermining regional stability, the Islamic Republic’s regime used ideology as a rhetorical tool to undermine the political stability of other regimes. Indeed, it openly disputed the Egyptian state’s legitimacy and called for the overthrow of its government, and its message of revolutionary Islamism inspired Islamists and others within Egypt at a highly unstable point in Egyptian history, as Sadat’s popularity was at an all-time low following the infitah to the West and the Camp David Accords. Iran’s efforts were not confined to Egypt, however, as the Islamic Republic sought to export its revolution across the region. Iran’s ideational power projection was consequently considered a national security threat by most Arab regimes (apart from Syria, which established an a strategic alliance with Iran as a counterbalance to its neighbours and enemies Israel and Iraq). Egypt’s support for Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War and reconciliation with the Arab Gulf states “enabled the regime to recast the Iranian threat in more stark religious and ethnic terms, mitigating the attractiveness of the ideas and shrinking the political space for opposition groups to oppose the regime” (Rubin, 2014, p. 52), and were thus in response to Iran’s ideational – rather than its military – power projection (Rubin, 2014, p. 41-42; Monshipouri & Zamary, 2017, p. 219).

Finally, it should be noted that the thawing of relations with the Arab Gulf states greatly benefited Egypt economically. The country’s trade with the U.A.E. increased from zero after the Camp David Accords to over $30 million in 1986, while trade with Kuwait increased from $10 million in 1982 to about $90 million three years later, and Saudi imports from Egypt climbed from under $50 million in 1979 to over $80 million in 1985 and exports to Egypt rose from around $40 million in 1979 to nearly $250 million in 1984. Meanwhile, Egypt reaped the benefits of its peace deal with Israel, as it replaced Iran as the main oil supplier to the Jewish state, supplying over 43 percent of Israeli oil needs by 1986, and besides received billions of dollars of economic and military aid from the United States. These economic benefits of Egypt’s post-1979 foreign policy certainly compensated for the cessation of trade with Iran and considerably boosted the country’s economy (Bayat & Baktriari, 2002, p. 316).

Conclusion

The Iranian Revolution significantly impacted Egypt’s foreign policy. While relations between Egypt and Iran had been cordial during the 1970s, as both countries were Western-oriented, secular states that were aligned to the U.S. and supported peace with Israel, the overthrow of the Shah and the establishment of the Islamic Republic in Iran radically changed their relationship. The new Iranian regime, seeking to spread its message of revolutionary Islamism and promote the overthrow of secular regimes across the region, was highly critical of the Egyptian government’s cooperation with the West and peace treaty with Israel, and challenged the Egyptian state’s legitimacy through religious symbolism. Although Iran’s military power projection capabilities had decreased following the Iranian Revolution, it now posed an imminent threat to Egypt’s internal stability. While Iran had been a status quo power that had no interest in undermining regional stability under the Shah, the Islamic Republic’s ambition to export its revolution threatened Egypt’s sovereignty and its revolutionary Islamist ideology inspired large segments of the Egyptian population at a time when the government’s popularity was at an all-time low following the infitah to the West and the signing of the Camp David Accords.

In response to these threats, the Egyptian regime intensified its military cooperation with the U.S. and became a major U.S. non-NATO ally, and reconciled with the Arab world. While a number of Arab states had broken diplomatic ties with Egypt and the country had been expelled from the Arab League because of its separate peace with Israel, the Arab world and Egypt now needed each other in view of the common threat posed by Iran’s ideational power projection. Consequently, Egypt strongly supported Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War, and gradually improved its ties with the Arab Gulf states, which besides significantly benefitted the country economically. Egypt was reintegrated into the Arab world and readmitted to the Arab League, and its ‘natural’ position as leader of the Arab world was restored when the Arab League headquarters were moved to Cairo. The Iranian Revolution intensified Egypt’s alliance with the U.S. and significantly altered its alliance patterns, as the Egyptian regime reconciled with and was reintegrated into the Arab world and banded together with Iraq and the Arab Gulf states in response to the common threat posed by the ideational power projection of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Tom Leijnse is an MA student at SOAS University of London, where he studies Near and Middle Eastern Studies and Intensive Arabic. His interests include the geopolitics of the Middle East and North Africa and Islamic history and thought.

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