Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil al-Arabi's announcement on April 5 that Egypt is prepared to reinstate full diplomatic relations with Iran comes at a strange juncture. With popular protests still ongoing, Egypt's domestic political scene has yet to find its feet. In addition, the trust between the people and the army has been shaken by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces' decision to issue an interim constitution. So why, in the midst of domestic uncertainty, has the transitional government chosen to tackle one of its most complex foreign policy conundrums -- namely, Iran?
Egypt's relationship with Iran has long been unstable, and it is one of the few countries -- along with Israel, the U.S. and Morocco -- without formal diplomatic relations with Tehran. The nature of relations between Egypt and Iran -- the region's two biggest nations and both inheritors of ancient civilizations -- has often swung dramatically from rapprochement to rivalry. The catalyst for these shifts has historically been tied to changes in leadership.
Before Egypt's Free Officers Revolution in 1952, the Shah of Iran and King Farouk of Egypt enjoyed a good relationship. The shah was even briefly married to Farouk's sister Fawzia. After Gamal Abdel Nasser became president of Egypt, hostility came to characterize relations between Tehran and Cairo, as the shah pursued close ties with the U.S. and Israel, while Nasser set about obtaining military support from the Soviet Union. Consequently, diplomatic ties were severed between Tehran and Cairo for 10 years starting in 1960.