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Egypt and Iran Assassinating Middle East Peace Once Again

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Posted on April 28 2011 12:30 pm
Seth Mandel is the former managing editor of four New Jersey-based newspapers, where he won awards for his coverage of the Middle East and Russia. He has appeared on Shalom TV's current affairs roundtable. He is currently based in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @SethAMandel

One unfortunate but enduring truth of the Middle East is that the act of making peace with Israel, for an Arab leader—whether Christian or Muslim—is also the act of instantly becoming a target for assassination.

Bashir Gemayel didn’t even get as far as signing Lebanon’s peace treaty with Israel before the Syrians erased him. One man who did get that far was Anwar Sadat, and the legend of his assassin, the Islamist Khalid Islambouli, has been treated as the saga of a hero by Iran’s Islamist leadership ever since.

That reverence has been a point of contention between Iran and Egypt to this day—but that may be changing. Here is Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty yesterday:

The Islamist army officer who assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981 in revenge for signing the Camp David Accords with Israel has long stood as a symbol of the political and ideological divide between the two countries. Executed along with three co-conspirators for the crime the following year, Islambouli acquired pariah status in Egypt — an embodiment of the perils lurking behind Islamic radicalism.

In Iran, by contrast, he is renowned as a hero and a martyr, a privilege reflected in a massive mural painting in central Tehran. One of the capital’s most prestigious streets also bears his name, in what Egyptian officials have regarded as a provocation and a block to restoring long-severed diplomatic ties.

[…]

In what may be a blow to the interests of Israel and the United States, Egypt has declared itself ready to re-establish links with Tehran in the wake of February’s overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak, who saw Iran’s Islamic regime as a bitter foe.

The new Egyptian foreign minister, Nabil Al-Arabi, signaled a thaw on March 30 when he voiced hopes for an “expansion of ties” with Iran.  His comments came a month after Egypt — in the wake of Mubarak’s departure — set Western alarm bells ringing by allowing Iranian naval ships to sail through the Suez Canal for the first time in 30 years.

This is something I touched on in a National Review essay in March. Egypt and Iran have a long history, post-1979 revolution, of deep antagonism. Egypt has since served as a secular bulwark against the spread of Islamist governance in the Middle East—a valuable role, despite Egypt’s many, many flaws.

I offered a note of (very) qualified optimism:

Does the Egyptian defense ministry’s approval for the transit of Iranian warships in the Suez mean the two are coming to terms? Not necessarily. Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, said the ships may indicate that for now, Egypt is far too disorganized to stand up to Tehran’s bullying.

But once Egypt is strong enough to stand on her own two feet again, she may challenge Iran’s bid for Islamic hegemony in the region. Though theoretically the balance would be restored, it would be between two unstable and unreliable nations, as far as the West is concerned. “Just because Egypt and Iran compete, it doesn’t necessarily accrue to our benefit,” Berman said.

But now Iran is set to establish an embassy in Cairo just as Egyptian protesters marched on the Israeli embassy there, demanding “the cancellation of normalization.” And that’s not all. RFE/RL reported in the same article that Al-Arabi has also suggested patching things up with Hamas.

That is a double-edged sword, however. The article notes that it could be a source of renewed tension between Iran and Egypt, as the two would compete over Hamas. I think that’s a bit naïve. And even if it does happen that way, would Israel not be alarmed if Iran and Egypt were competing over who could better fund and supply Hamas?

This is not yet reason for panic, but it absolutely is reason for great concern, not to mention some contingency planning for Israel’s energy needs. Additionally, the fact that NATO can’t seem to beat Qaddafi’s band of brigands does not bode well for our side in the mental chess game that takes place beneath the surface of Mideast geopolitics.

Odds are that if, as RFE/RL says, “the ghost of Islambouli is close to being laid to rest,” it will likely rise again—this time to haunt Israel and the West.

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