Egypt and Iran are enjoying an unexpected rapprochement after Presidents Mubarak and Khatami held talks on the sidelines of a UN technology forum in Geneva on 10 December. It was the first meeting of leaders from the two countries since the Iranian revolution in 1979, when the Islamic Republic severed ties with Cairo after it granted asylum to the ousted Shah. ‘This is the first big step towards forming full relations between Iran and Egypt and I hope it won’t be the last step,’ Iranian Vice-President Mohammed Ali Abtahi said after the meeting.

In his first direct talks with a senior Israeli official in several years, Mubarak met Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom in Geneva the previous day to discuss ways of promoting a meeting between the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers. ‘I am very encouraged to hear that President Mubarak will do everything he can to narrow the gap between us and the Palestinians,’ Shalom said after the meeting, adding that there were also plans for the Egyptian premier to meet Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Cairo recalled its envoy to Israel three years ago at the start of the Al-Aqsa intifada, but diplomatic channels have remained open and Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman has been instrumental in bringing the various armed Palestinian factions to the negotiating table on several occasions this year. However, the latest meeting of Palestinian groups in Cairo in early December failed to broker an agreement on a total ceasefire – one of the main preconditions of the roadmap, which will weaken the hand of Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei at any future peace summit.

The rogue element in the equation remains Sharon, who has made several vague declarations about ‘unilateral measures’ that could be taken by Israel, including dismantling some settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. Unilateral actions in the last month have so far not been conducive to a possible peace settlement. At least four Palestinians were killed and 17 wounded following another major Israeli incursion into Rafah refugee camp in Gaza on 11 December.