CAIRO: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad discussed the crisis in Syria with his Egyptian counterpart Tuesday in the first visit by an Iranian leader to Cairo in more than three decades, marking a historic departure from years of frigid ties between the regional heavyweights.
Ahmadinejad’s three-day visit, which is centered around an Islamic summit, is the latest sign of efforts by Egypt’s Islamist President Mohammed Morsi to improve relations, which have been cut sinceIran’s 1979 revolution.
Morsi’s flirtation with Iran is seen as aiming to strike an independent foreign policy and broaden Egypt’s connections after the ouster two years ago of longtime leader Hosni Mubarak, who kept close to the line of the United States. Such a visit by an Iranian leader would have been unthinkable under Mubarak, who was a close ally of the U.S. and shared Washington’s deep suspicions ofTehran.
But the limits to how far Morsi can go were on display during Tuesday’s visit. There are deep suspicions in overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim Egypt toward Iran and its Shiite clergy leadership. Also, Morsi’s government was quick to reassure Arab Gulf nations, which are bitter rivals of Tehran and are concerned over the spread of its influence, that Egypt is intent on their security.
Sunni-Shiite tensions dominated talks Ahmadinejad held with Egypt’s most prominent cleric, Sheik Ahmed el-Tayeb, who heads the Sunni world’s most prestigious religious institution, Al-Azhar.
El-Tayeb upbraided Ahmedinejad on a string of issues. He warned against Iranian interference in Gulf nations, particularly Bahrain, where the ruling Sunni minority has faced protests by the Shiite majority. He also said attempts to spread Shiite Islam in mainly Sunni Arab nations were unacceptable and demanded a halt to bloodshed in Syria, where Tehran’s ally President Bashar Assadhas been battling rebels, according to a statement by Al-Azhar about the meeting.
He also demanded Ahmedinejad come out against insults against the first caliphs who succeeded the Prophet Muhammad and other figures close to the prophet in the 7th Century. Those figures are widely resented among Shiites because they are seen as having pushed aside Ali, the prophet’s son-in-law who Shiites consider his rightful successor. The dispute over succession is at the root of the centuries-old split between Islam’s Shiite and Sunni sects.
The meeting was “tense,” acknowledged an aide to the sheik, Hussein al-Shafie, at a press conference with Ahmadinejad afterward — which el-Tayeb did not join.
Morsi gave the Iranian leader a red-carpet welcome on the tarmac at Cairo airport, shaking his hand and exchanging a kiss on each cheek as a military honor guard stood at attention.