The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies’ Iranian Studies Unit hosted Ahmed Morsy, Manager of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) program at the American Political Science Association (APSA), and Co-founder of the Arab Political Science Network (APSN), 1 April 2021. Morsy’s lecture “Zig-Zag Politics: The Tumultuous Egypt-Iran Relationship” was chaired by Mehran Kamrava, head of the unit and Professor of Government at Georgetown University in Qatar.

Morsy began by explaining the factors behind relations between Iran and Egypt, such as “personality politics, leaders’ threat perceptions, domestic political and economic considerations, regional and bilateral alliances, and competing visions of regional order”. He then discussed the early diplomatic relations between the two countries. While relations between Iran and Egypt date back several thousand years, in 1928 Iran and Egypt signed a treaty focused on diplomatic ties and rights of either country’s resident citizens in each.

 Growing post-World War II nationalist and anti-colonial rhetoric in both countries in the 1940s and 1950s led to the 35th Prime Minister of Iran Mohammad Mosaddeq’s visit to Egypt, after his attending a United Nations Security Council meeting in New York in 1951. Upon arriving in Egypt, he was welcomed by a cheering crowd, and Egyptian news coverage glorified and praised him for his bold move to nationalize Iran’s oil industry. He met with Mostafa El-Nahas, Egypt’s Prime Minister, for discussions of relations between the two countries and collaboration to challenge British colonialism, and also reaffirmed commitment to the 1928 treaty.

Iran’s relations with Egypt changed with Gamal Abdel Nasser’s overthrow of the monarchy in 1952 by and Nasser’s rise to power as the second President of Egypt in 1954. “Personality politics and perceptions of leadership became central to this relationship,” Morsy stated. When Mossadeq was overthrown in 1953 following the coup d'état orchestrated by British and American intelligence, Nasser and members of his administration, with their anti-imperial and anti-colonial rhetoric, found themselves wary of the newly installed Pahlavi Shah.

Given the subsequent very different courses of development in Egypt and Iran, building Iran-Egypt relations were no priority for Nasser. Morsy observed that “this continued into the 1960s when Egyptian and Iranian propaganda machines were at daggers drawn. Nasser’s denounced the Shah as a bad example for Arab monarchies to follow, encouraging them to rally to his Arab nationalist approaches and policies”. In 1960, the Shah announced Iran’s recognition of Israel, and Nasser completely severed their ties.

Acrimonious Iran-Egypt relations persisted until Nasser’s death in 1970, when Iran declared a three-day mourning period in a gesture marking the resumption of diplomatic relations. Egypt’s new and third President Anwar Sadat then built up very close relations with Iran’s Shah, for a number of beneficial reasons: Iran’s close relations with the United States and Israel; regaining the lost Sinai Peninsula in 1967; and financial support for building a better economy in Egypt. “Sadat saw that alliance-building with more countries would help him improve relations with the West, and possibly, enter into dialogue with the Israelis,” Morsy explained. Following Egypt’s reclaiming of disputed territories and initiation of discussion of a peace treaty with Israel, Iran helped Egypt finance the clearing and re-opening of the Suez Canal and reconstruction of war-damaged cities, particularly Port Said. Iran became one of the main providers of financial support and foreign aid to Egypt during this period.

In the wake of the 1979 revolution in Iran and establishment of the Islamic Republic relations between the two countries were severed again, following the Egypt-Israel peace treaty signed that same year. Morsy described Hosni Mubarak’s subsequent reign and relations with Iran as a period of “normalized stagnation”. With the fall of Mubarak in 2011 and the presidency of Mohamed Morsi in 2012 there was a glimmer of potential rapprochement between the two countries: Morsi briefly visited Iran in August 2012 following his election, and Ahmadinejad became the first Iranian president since the 1979 revolution to visit Egypt. Morsy concluded his presentation by observing that with the deposing of elected president Mohamed Morsi in 2013 and the installation of the presidency of Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, Egypt reverted to the “normalized stagnation” that had characterized Egypt-Iran relations under Mubarak.