By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
On Monday, Egypt expelled an Iranian diplomat after briefly detaining him on spy charges, this being tantamount to a new thorn on the rocky path of normalization between the two countries.
In the larger scheme of things, this mini-scandal is unlikely to stop the slow train of diplomatic restoration of relations that has gained momentum since February.
Calling it a "misunderstanding", Iran's affable Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi has understandably downplayed the issue regarding Qassem Hosseini, which has been played up in the Arab media as yet another sign of Iran's meddling in internal Arab affairs. Also downplaying the incident is outgoing Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil el-Araby, who is assuming the mantle of head of the Arab League, replacing the now Egyptian presidential hopeful Amr Mussa.
Meeting on the sidelines of a Non-Aligned Movement summit last week, the two foreign ministers expressed their optimism on the future of Iran-Egypt relations, with el-Araby clarifying that the matter would be handled by the Egyptian parliament after the September parliamentary elections in Egypt.
In turn, Salehi has adopted a more cautious approach, nuancing his earlier statements favoring a short-term change in ties between the two countries by citing Egypt's various "internal considerations" that will likely yield a slower and more protracted process of normalization.
For sure, the spy charge represents a minor setback that has pleased the various internal and external opponents of closer Iran-Egypt relations, including the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia. These countries are wary of the changing regional balance of power and "alterations in the geopolitical calculus" as a result of such a development. Yet this alliance is considered natural from the point of view of many Iranian politicians and pundits who have vested their hopes on the emergence of a "new Egypt" assuming a more independent, and assertive, role in regional and global affairs.
Within Egypt, on the other hand, there is a rising chorus of caution and even negativism, with some media pundits framing the issue in zero-sum terms, as if Egypt's gain with Iran would definitely translate into a loss for Cairo's relations with the West, Israel and the Persian Gulf Arab sheikhdoms, chiefly Saudi Arabia.
This overlooks the importance of new Egypt's own standard, in forging normal relations with all Muslim nations, including Iran, with whom it has a great deal of historical, cultural and regional interests. For example, antipathy to Israel's nuclear proliferation, the fate of Palestinians, the future of the Non-Aligned Movement, and the form and content of regional leadership, not to mention the larger global issues of disarmament, a new world economic order and fair globalization.
Unfortunately, some pundits in Iran and Egypt have conflated the two issues of diplomatic and political proximity, thus falsely assuming that as long as some political differences, such as Iran's moral sympathy with Egyptian Islamists, remain the possibility of normalization is minimal. Not necessarily.
A case in point, despite their intense rivalry today, Iran and Saudi Arabia have full diplomatic relations, which in essence means that one should not vest a great deal of weight on the importance of diplomatic relations per se, rather it is the various bilateral and multilateral side-effects, such as a cognitive synergy on such matters as regional security arrangements, that makes a big difference.
With Egypt in a state of transition, its foreign policy orientation and the fate of big questions such as the nature of its relations with other big states in the Middle East, ie, Iran, remains in a state of flux and transition, and is bound to experience more "ups and downs", to paraphrase Salehi.
The down of the spy charge, which may have been exaggerated by opponents of normalization within the Egyptian military and security apparatuses, will hopefully be followed by more ups, including on the economic front. This is in light of the physical proximity of the two nations that is conducive to enhanced trade relations.
Iran's top officials, including the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammad Khazaee, in an exclusive interview with this author (See Middle East in Transition Asia Times Online, May 5), have expressed the hope that bilateral relations can be upgraded in the near term. Perhaps a prudent strategy is to focus less on diplomatic ties and more on regional and economic issues.
The issue is whether or not Egypt's new rulers can withstand the outside pressure to refrain from improving their relations with Iran? As a result of Egypt's financial dependency on the US, and to a lesser extent on Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council states, Cairo must thread a cautious path. This must not culminate in net military and financial losses at a delicate time in the country's history when the tumults of the past several months have caused havoc on the Egyptian economy.
A middle path that would be win-win on multiple fronts should be explored by the Egyptian ruling elite, whereby improved ties with Iran transpire simultaneously with other similar signs of Egypt's foreign policy autonomy in tandem with its existing obligations and foreign policy interests.
Still, incremental foreign policy changes, short of a complete reorientation, highlighted by restoring full diplomatic relations with Iran, are bound to introduce some inevitable fissures with countries such as Israel, which can no longer count on Egypt's explicit or implicit support for any military action on either Iran and or the Palestinians in Gaza. The former Egyptian compliance with US-Israeli designs for the region is now replaced with an era of uncertainty about Egypt's external behavior.
The bottom line is that the normalization of relations with Tehran is a question of political identity for Cairo and its new ruling elite, that is, the coming to age and maturity of Egypt as an independent actor on the regional and global scene.