CAIRO: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad traveled to Cairo on Tuesday, the first visit by an Iranian leader to Egypt since the two countries broke off diplomatic relations three decades ago and a barometer of the shifts in regional dynamics under way since the start of the Arab uprisings.
Relations between the two countries have warmed since the toppling of Egypt’s former president, Hosni Mubarak, who was deeply hostile to Iran’s leadership and portrayed himself to his allies, including the United States, the Persian Gulf monarchies and Israel, as a bulwark against Iranian influence.
Lately, though, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has been promoting the idea that the recent Arab revolutions were inspired by the Iranian revolution of 1979.
“Egypt is a very important country in the region and the Islamic Republic of Iran believes it is one of the heavyweights in the Middle East,” Iran’s foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, told the state Islamic Republic News Agency in Munich on Tuesday. “We are ready to further strengthen ties.”
While Egypt’s relations with Iran remain limited, the scene on the tarmac at the Cairo Airport on Tuesday — Egypt’s president, Mohamed Morsi, greeting Ahmadinejad warmly in a red-carpet ceremony — would have been unimaginable under Mubarak, and seemed likely to alarm the Obama administration.
Morsi and Ahmadinejad discussed “developments in the regional arena,” including the war in Syria and “means of enhancing relations between Egypt and Iran,” according to Egypt’s state news agency. Ahmadinejad is in Egypt for a three-day visit to attend an Islamic summit.
Since becoming president in June as the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi has framed his approach to foreign policy as an effort to chart a more independent course and to reassert Egypt’s historical regional leadership role. Morsi has also tried to place Egypt at the center of negotiations to end the crisis in Syria.
In August, in another historic first, Morsi traveled to Tehran for the summit of the Nonaligned Movement, a visit that was seen as helping to ease Iran’s international isolation.
Analysts say it is unlikely that Egypt and Iran will restore full ties, noting the pressure on Morsi to keep his distance from Iran, particularly from the United States and Egypt’s financial benefactors among the Persian Gulf monarchies.