CAIRO: The announcement last week that Egypt and Iran had signed a memorandum of understanding to resume flights between Cairo and Tehran has prompted speculation that it could lead to the resumption of formal ties, frozen since 1980.
Last week on Sunday, Civil Aviation Authority head Sameh El-Hefni and Iranian National Aviation Company Deputy Hamid Ghavabesh signed the memorandum in the presence of Minister of Civil Aviation Ahmed Shafiq and Iranian Vice President and Head of Tourism Hamid Baghai.
Though no specific timing was set for the actual beginning of the flights, El-Hefni stated that the deal would lead to 28 flights per week between Cairo and Tehran. Egyptian businessman Rami Lakah’s private airline will be the Egyptian counterpart of the eight year $1.37 billion deal with Iranian Kish Air.
The backdrop to the deal is a relationship that has been fraught with tension between the two countries, especially in recent years and a new geo-political divide in the Middle East, which only makes the deal even more of a surprise in contrast.
However, anyone thinking that this lays the groundwork for a future thawing in the tenseness of relations between the two is mistaken according to International relations expert Emad Gad from Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
“It doesn’t mean a resumption of ties because the relationship is very complicated and with the current Iranian president [Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] it is very tense. The two countries stand opposed on almost all issues in the region. Also, the Egyptian regime does not make decisions contrary to the wishes of the United States,” he said.
The memorandum has engendered criticism from the US, which promotes and supports UN sanctions on Iran and opposes any economic cooperation with the Islamic republic.
US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said regarding the deal, “We’re aware of the reports that they’ve signed a memorandum of understanding to resume direct flights. And we continue to urge all countries, including Egypt, not to pursue any new business deals until Iran complies with its international obligations.”
“Given the current atmosphere … we’re trying to discourage this kind of engagement with Iran, until it owns up to its international obligations,” Toner added, in reference to UN Security Council resolutions regarding its alleged nuclear program.
The Egyptian decision, in light of the regime’s close ties to the US, has caused bewilderment about the reasons behind the deal.
A market source told Daily News Egypt, “The timing does come as a surprise because it comes at a time when the rest of the world is trying to comply with US and UN regulations about economic relations with Iran. Other countries are looking to freeze accounts with Iran and a big US ally like Egypt is doing the opposite.”
In contrast, on Monday, Egyptian and US ally the UAE requested greater clarity from the UN regarding trade sanctions with Iran, as it is a longtime trading partner of Iran due to its proximity.
In light of all this, it begs the question as to why Egypt went ahead and signed the memorandum despite knowing it would anger its allies in the region and the US.
According to Gad, the decision “seems to be a ploy to pressure the US and Arab allies into certain gains, a game being played by Egyptian diplomacy. It is a political decision and Egypt is not ready to resume ties with Iran, especially as it continues to support Hamas and Hezbollah in the region.”
“Also the announcement was that the flights would begin next summer, which gives them enough time to reconsider their decision if they want, assuming they get what they want,” he added.
Egypt and Iran have not had formal relations since the Islamic revolution of 1979. Iran was angered by the late President Anwar Sadat’s decision to host the exiled Shah Reza Pahlavi in Egypt and in turn angered Egypt by naming a street in Tehran after Sadat’s assassin, Khaled El Eslamboli.