Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Ahmadinejad Visits Cairo: How Sect Tempers Islamist Ties between Egypt, Iran

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Ahmadinejad Visits Cairo: How Sect Tempers Islamist Ties between Egypt, Iran

Article excerpt

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in Cairo today in the first visit of an Iranian leader to Egypt since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Although Mr. Ahmadinejad traveled to Egypt for a summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, not specifically to meet with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, his trip highlights the thaw in Egyptian-Iranian relations since an uprising unseated former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Egypt literally rolled out the red carpet for Ahmadinejad and President Morsi greeted the Iranian president with a kiss on the cheek as he welcomed him at the airport. Morsi made the first visit to Tehran by an Egyptian leader in three decades in August, also for a summit.

But while Ahmadinejad's visit is historic, analysts say it does not likely herald the start of close ties between the two regional powerhouses because Egypt has too much to lose with its Sunni Gulf backers and international allies.

There are very real constraints on Morsi's ability to concretely improve relations with Iran, says Elijah Zarwan, a Cairo-based senior policy fellow for the European Council on Foreign Relations. With Egyptian state institutions like the intelligence service opposed to strengthening ties with Iran, and Egypt's wealthy allies in the Gulf and the US also frowning at the prospect, the costs to closer ties with Iran far outweigh the benefits, says Mr. Zarwan. The US, European countries, and Cairo's Sunni Gulf allies are all hostile to Shiite powerhouse Iran.

Egypt and Iran cut ties after a 1979 revolution brought hardline clerics to power in Tehran, while in Egypt then-president Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel. Egypt offered asylum to Iran's exiled leader, Shah Reza Pahlavi. Iran named a street in Tehran after the assassin who killed Sadat. Egypt soon became a major US ally in the region, while Iran became an enemy.

A limited outreach

Morsi began improving relations when he visited Tehran in August for a Non-Aligned Movement summit. Yet he used the visit to criticize Iran for being one of the biggest backers of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has lost the support of most of the Arab world for ordering a violent crackdown on his country's uprising, and to call for Assad to step down. He also made a subtle dig about Shiite Islam in his summit speech.

Still, the exchange of visits would have been unthinkable during Mr. Mubarak's reign.

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Morsi is under pressure to distinguish himself from Mubarak's foreign policy, and thawing relations with Iran is part of his effort to establish a more independent foreign policy, says Zarwan. Last fall Morsi proposed an initiative to end the Syria crisis that involved Iran in a regional committee, and offered Iran incentives, including restored ties, to end support for the Syrian regime. …

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