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After Saudi Arabia, Iran may be patching up with its oldest Arab foe

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It was perhaps the first royal wedding of its stature to have been filmed in the Middle East.

The year was 1939, when Princess Fawzia of Egypt tied the knot with Iran’s Crown Prince Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, interlocking the royal households of two of the Middle East’s most prominent nations in a strategic alliance.

Thousands of people had gathered for the event at Cairo’s Abdine Palace, where the wedding was marked with fireworks and a parade showcasing the two nations’ civilizations.

Princess Fawzia was the eldest sister of King Farouk I – Egypt’s last monarch – and was just 17 years old when she married Pahlavi, who two years later ascended to the throne and became Shah of Iran. Fawzia filed for divorce in 1945, and the divorce was recognized by Tehran in 1948.

Forty years after the wedding, Pahlavi was overthrown in an Islamic revolution that changed the course of Iranian relations with Arab states, and sent Iranian-Egyptian ties in particular on a downward spiral from which the two nations have never emerged.

The feud became the longest between Iran and an Arab country in modern times. But it may soon be coming to an end.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last week publicly endorsed normalizing ties with Egypt, the most populous Arab country, saying that Iran “welcomes Egypt’s interest in restoring relations.”

“We have no problem in this regard,” he tweeted.

Media reports have touted a potential détente between the two countries after Oman’s Sultan Haitham Bin Tariq visited both last month in what was seen as an attempt to broker a reconciliation.

Khamenei’s recent comments come as Saudi Arabia normalizes ties with Iran after nearly eight years of a diplomatic freeze. Iran reopened its embassy and consulate in Saudi Arabia last week.

A ‘prize’ for Tehran

“Even if not accurate, the narrative would be that Tehran is strengthening its own position at the expense of the United States,” he said, noting that for Egypt, interest isn’t as high on the agenda as “Tehran doesn’t really provide much to Cairo.”

The wider region has been witnessing a series of rapprochements between states that were once at odds with one another. Apart from Saudi Arabia and Iran, Egypt has reconciled with both Turkey and Qatar, and the Arab League last month welcomed Syria back as a member after more than a decade of isolation.

Having failed to normalize ties with the West, Iran considers stronger ties with other countries in the Middle East as an alternative now, said Trita Parsi, vice-president of the Quincy Institute think tank in Washington, DC.

Much of this, added Parsi, is driven by the regional belief that the role of the US in the region, and in turn its protection of it, is waning.

Analysts say that while this round of normalization with Egypt is unlikely to be a difficult one, it may still come with complications as the two states share a unique history pitted with unsavory memories.

“On paper, perhaps this should be an easier one because the countries are not actually in a direct conflict in the same way that Saudi Arabia and Iran were,” Parsi said. “They are on the opposite sides of different issues, but that’s different.”

While ties between Egypt and Iran witnessed some tensions before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, they took an abrupt turn with Tehran’s new clerical rule.

Gamal Abdel Nasser, who suffered a crushing defeat in 1967 at Israel’s hands, was at odds with an Iranian Shah who was friendly with the Jewish state. Ties between Cairo and Tehran however improved after Nasser’s death as President Anwar Sadat sought to reach out to the Shah.

But Pahlavi, having ruled Iran since 1941, was toppled in the Islamic Revolution soon after, and it was Sadat’s Egypt that gave him refuge, infuriating the new clerical rulers in Tehran.

The Shah lived in Cairo until his death in 1980 at the age of 60. He was buried next to the Cairo Citadel, at Al-Rifa’I mosque where King Farouk is also buried, and a shrine was built for him.

Sadat was assassinated one year later by an Egyptian army officer named Khaled Islambouli, who opposed the president’s signing of a landmark normalization treaty with Israel in 1979. Iran’s Islamic Republic named a street in the capital after the assassin.

Weight of historical symbolism

As the years passed by, Egypt and Iran only grew apart, with little desire to reconcile from either party.

Ties partially improved under former President Hosni Mubarak, when chargé d’affaires were exchanged, but relations never reached the ambassadorial level. And in 2004, Tehran’s Islambouli street was changed to Intifada, referring to a Palestinian uprising against Israel.

Attempts at normalization failed. There were brief hopes of a reconciliation when the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings led to the ouster of Mubarak and gave rise to a Muslim Brotherhood-led government that indicated a desire to mend ties with Iran.

Islamist President Mohamed Mursi even traveled to Tehran in 2012 to attend a Non-Aligned Movement summit. Ater a year in power, he was toppled in a coup led by incumbent President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi.

“The history of it is filled with symbolism that carries a lot of political weight,” Parsi said, noting that these symbolic differences in the past prevented “the rather careful attempts at normalization that took place.”

Opposing interests proved too strong, Parsi said, and normalization never took place. But today, he said, “the value of normalization is greater, and the cost of not normalizing, because of these regional shifts, is also much higher.”

One regional state whose interests an Egypt-Iran reconciliation won’t serve is Israel.

Israel is unlikely to see any normalization with Iran as positive, Parsi said, as it only helps Iran extract itself from the isolation imposed on it by the West and its allies that has been championed by Israel.

“Israel wants an isolated and contained Iran,” he said, adding that the détentes taking place today with Iran are particularly problematic because they “pop the balloon of the Abraham Accords.”

The Abraham Accords are a series of normalization deals between Israel and Arab nations, signed in 2020, which Israel hopes will lead to its full integration in the region. Most Arab states continue to reject recognition of Israel.

Ultimately however, an Egyptian-Iranian détente could have little impact beyond symbolism.

“The absence of Iranian-Egyptian normalization didn’t mean all that much, and the presence of it, I suspect, won’t either,” said Hellyer.

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