Visit to Cairo eases estrangement

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CAIRO -- Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived to a red-carpet welcome and a kiss on the cheek by Egypt's new Islamist leader in a historic trip to strengthen relations between the two nations after decades of estrangement and suspicion.

Iran seeks a closer bond with Cairo as part of a strategy to broaden its influence in the Middle East at a time when Tehran's closest ally, Syria, is enmeshed in a civil war and Mr. Ahmadinejad faces increasing pressure from Arab states in the Persian Gulf.

President Mohammed Morsi warmly greeted Mr. Ahmadinejad at the airport in a stark recognition of Egypt's redrawn political landscape since an uprising toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak two years ago. Mubarak had refused formal diplomatic ties with Iran, viewing the Shiite Muslim-led theocracy as a threat to the Arab Sunni Muslim world.

Those misgivings were quickly evident Tuesday, when a leading cleric condemned Iran's policies. But Mr. Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood are intent on restoring Egypt's stature as a leading regional power. Tehran views Cairo as a potential economic partner and pivotal player in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Iran is struggling with the prospect of losing influence in Syria while trying to survive Western sanctions over its nuclear program.

"I will try to pave the ground for developing cooperation between Iran and Egypt," Mr. Ahmadinejad was quoted as saying by Iranian state media. "If Tehran and Cairo see more eye-to-eye on regional and international issues, many [issues] will change."

Mr. Ahmadinejad's visit is the first by an Iranian leader since Egypt gave sanctuary to the deposed shah during Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution. The bitterness intensified when Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel. In the years before his downfall, Mubarak, a staunch U.S. ally, allowed informal exchanges but rebuffed overtures for a thaw.

The exuberant Mr. Ahmadinejad was once praised by many Egyptians for his defiance of the West.

But since Egypt's revolution gave rise to Sunni Islamists, he has become a curiosity -- reviled by ultraconservatives mistrustful of Shiite ambitions and criticized by reformers over Iran's crackdowns on civil liberties and anti-government protesters.

Egypt's security forces arrested four protesters and charged them with attempted assault against Mr. Ahmadinejad during his visit to Cairo's al-Hussein mosque, the official Ahram Gate website reported, citing a security official.


Bloomberg News contributed.


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