Egypt's Islamist President Mohammed Morsi gave Ahmadinejad a red-carpet welcome on the tarmac at Cairo airport, shaking the Iranian's hand and exchanging a kiss on each cheek as a military honor guard stood at attention.
Ahmadinejad's three-day visit, which is centered around an Islamic summit, is the latest sign of improved relations between the countries since the 2011 uprising ousted Egypt's longtime ruler President Hosni Mubarak and brought an Islamist government to power in Cairo. Such a visit would have been unthinkable under Mubarak, who was a close ally of the U.S. and shared Washington's deep suspicions of Tehran.
Shortly after his arrival, Ahmadinejad and Morsi held 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 Syrian President Bashar 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.
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 and wary of the Shiite nation, 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 today that “Egypt's relationship with Iran will never come at the expense of Gulf nations.”
During his visit to Egypt, Ahmadinejad is scheduled to meet with Grand Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the head of Al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world's premier Islamic institution. He is also scheduled to attend the summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Cairo, which starts Wednesday.
Security officials said Ahmadinejad is also going to tour the Pyramids in Giza.
Once close, Egypt and Iran severed their relations after the 1979 Islamic Revolution when Cairo offered exile to Iran's deposed shah. Relations further deteriorated after Egypt's peace treaty with Israel.
Morsi's rise to power out of Egypt's own revolution complicates his ability to pursue better ties with Iran when it is seen as suppressing a revolution in Syria. Cairo is home to the offices of the main Syrian opposition council, which has a strong presence of members of the Brotherhood's Syrian chapter.
The Egyptian president also faces pressure on the home front not to cozy up to Tehran.
Today, Egypt's hardline Daawa Salafiya, which is the foundation of the main Salafi political Al-Nour Party, released a statement calling on Morsi to confront Ahmadinejad on Tehran's support for the Syrian regime and make clear that “Egypt is committed to the protection of all Sunni nations.”
Mohammed Abbas Nagi, an Egyptian expert on Iran, said Morsi may be trying to restore some level of diplomatic ties with Tehran in order to show that Cairo is pursuing a more independent foreign policy than that of his predecessor and to keep the door open to the Islamic Republic in case the Gulf states’ support dwindles.
“Despite the fact that restoring relations is a sovereign decision fully belonging to Egypt, I don't see that Egypt will make a decision separate from the course of its relationship with the U.S. and Israel, for whom Iran is now the main issue,” Nagi said.
Morsi visited Tehran last year to attend an international summit in the first visit by an Egyptian leader to Iran in years. He held a brief one-on-one talk with Ahmadinejad then and discussed Syria's civil war. But Morsi also used the opportunity in Tehran to lash out at Iran's ally, calling the Damascus regime “oppressive.”
Egypt's leader has spearheaded an “Islamic quartet” of nations to try and resolve the Syrian crisis that includes Iran, as well as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which are two of the most vocal critics of the Syrian president.
While Saudi Arabia has largely abstained from the group's meetings in an apparent snub to Iran's Syria policies, Egyptian officials say they will try to revive those talks on the sidelines of this week's OIC summit.