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Iran president visits Egypt in warming of ties

Tuesday - 2/5/2013, 7:08pm  ET

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, center, attends a press conference with Egyptian Sunni clerics at Al-Azhar headquarters in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013. Egypt's most prominent Muslim cleric, the sheik of al-Azhar, has warned Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against interfering in Arab Gulf countries or trying to spread Shiite influence. Ahmadinejad, on a landmark visit to Egypt on Tuesday, received an uneasy reception from Ahmed el-Tayeb at al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world's foremost Islamic institution.(AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

MAGGIE MICHAEL
Associated Press

CAIRO (AP) -- 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 since Iran'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 of Tehran.

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 Assad has 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.

The two leaders then sat down for a 20-minute talk that focused on the civil war in Syria, security officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media. Iran is Damascus' closes regional ally, while Egypt is among those that have called on Assad to step down.

In September, Morsi offered a package of incentives to Tehran to end its support for Assad. The proposal included the restoration of full diplomatic ties, which would be a significant prize for Iran given that Egypt is the most populous Arab nation and a regional Sunni powerhouse.

Morsi's offer garnered no response from Iran, although officials from both countries have continued to hold talks on the Syrian conflict in recent months.

Such diplomatic overtures have raised concerns among Sunni Gulf nations, who are keeping a close eye on the Iranian leader's visit. The Gulf states, who are opposed to Iran's regional policies, accuse Iran of supporting Shiite minorities in the Gulf, and harbor concerns about Tehran's disputed nuclear program.

Morsi and the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood group from which he hails have sought to ease Gulf concerns about its improved ties with Iran, and have stressed that the security of the Gulf nations -- which Egypt has relied upon for financial aid to help prop up its faltering economy -- is directly linked to Cairo's own.

Foreign Minister Mohammed Amr Kamel reiterated that on Tuesday, saying "Egypt's relationship with Iran will never come at the expense of Gulf nations."

Egypt was once closely allied to Iran's former ruling shah. The two countries severed relations after the 1979 Islamic Revolution brought a clerical rule to power in Iran and Egypt offered refuge to the deposed shah. In fact, Ahmadinejad's visit to Al-Azhar's sheik brought him not far from a grandiose Cairo mosque where the shah -- despised by Iran's clerical rulers -- is buried.

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