At the end of a rare visit to Egypt last week, Ali Larijani, a national security aide to Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said that the two key regional Muslim countries are making progress towards restoring full diplomatic ties, broken off after the Iranian revolution in 1979.

This was not, though, the first time that officials from both countries express optimism about the possibility of normalising their relations.

Several past attempts have failed to overcome the thorny issues between the two countries. In the late 2003, Cairo and Tehran were so close to re-establishing diplomatic relations.

Iran's rejection, Cairo says, to take down a large mural of former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat's assassin, Khaleed Al Islambouli, hindered progress in that direction.

Al Islambouli was one of the army officers who killed Sadat during a military parade in 1981. He was sentenced to death soon thereafter. Iran considered Al Islambouli as a martyr and has hence honoured him by naming a street in Tehran after him.

This was in fact the nominal reason that Cairo claims to have hindered the resumption of diplomatic relations with Iran. Teheran cut diplomatic ties after Cairo signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1979 and provided asylum for the deposed Iranian Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Fearing its declared agenda to export revolutionary ideas to the entire region, Egypt sided with Iraq in the eight years long war. Egyptian soldiers and officers fought and held back the Iranian revolutionary guard in Basra, south of Iraq, for weeks during the major fighting in the early 1986.


Following the US invasion of Iraq, President Mohammad Khatami called for the resumption of diplomatic relations with Egypt. US pressure on Cairo to stick with the policy of isolating Iran, undermined Khatami's efforts.

Since then the Cairo-Tehran relations have in fact been driven in the opposite direction. The ascendance of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power in August 2005 led to further deterioration in the relationship between the two countries.

Egypt, alongside other Arab countries, was alarmed at the rising Iranian influence in the region, particularly in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine.

To counteract Iran's quest for regional hegemony, Egypt joined an American-backed alliance of Sunni Arab states.

Cairo was in fact trying to contain the sea change which has engulfed the region after the fall of Saddam Hussain and the transfer of power from Sunni to Shiites Muslims in Iraq. Their differences were also tightly linked to the gradual decline of Cairo's regional influence and the collapse of its pan-Arab agenda.

Iran's increasing interference in the internal affairs of Arab countries has, thus, been strongly criticised by Cairo. Iran was accused of trying to use Arab causes to advance its interests and enhance its position ahead of any future deal with the West over its nuclear programme.

In the summer of 2006, the Egyptian government denounced the capture of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah, leading to massive Israeli aerial bombardment against Lebanon.

Egypt described Hezbollah's action as "irresponsible and uncalculated adventure", carried out at the behest of Tehran. Iran responded by accusing Egypt of being a lackey to the Americans.

When President Hosni Mubarak announced last September that he would be seeking nuclear energy for civilian purposes, his announcement was widely interpreted as a response to Iran's quest for nuclear power.

Reviving Egypt's nuclear programme, notwithstanding its peaceful nature, was meant to suggest that Cairo would not stand idle watching Tehran possessing nuclear power and hence strengthen its regional position on the expense of Egypt.

Amidst these fundamental differences, Larijani's visit to Cairo might not be as decisive as many would suggest. It would, indeed, not result in fundamental change as long as the two countries find themselves trapped in the middle of a conflict to decide their regional weight and influence.

Dr Marwan Kabalan is a lecturer in media and international relations, Faculty of Political Science and Media, Damascus University, Syria.