Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad met 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 improved relations between the countries since the 2011 uprising ousted Egypt’s longtime leader 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.
Though Egypt’s shifting alliances are unavoidably apparent, the United States is continuing to arm the country. On Sunday U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson held a ceremony in Cairo to mark the arrival of four F-16 fighter jets from the United States. Twenty in total are due to be delivered throughout 2013.
“Today’s ceremony demonstrates the firm belief of the United States that a strong Egypt is in the interest of the U.S., the region, and the world,” she declared.
According to the United States Embassy website, the U.S. has delivered 224 F-16 aircraft to Egypt.
Egypt’s Islamist President Mohammed Morsi gave Ahmadinejad 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. President Bashar al-Assad is a close regional ally of Iran and, more importantly, a doorway into the region. But 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.
Though the Syrians will chart their own future, the opinions and actions of Morsi and Ahmadinejad will certainly hold sway. If the two agree on what they believe should happen in Syria’s post-war future, the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran could expand their influence in yet another “Arab Spring” country.
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 also will 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.
Relations are clearly warming, but Morsi faces pressure from Gulf states and some of his own citizens not to cozy up to Tehran.
Egypt’s hardline Al-Nour Party wants Morsi to make it clear that “Egypt is committed to the protection of all Sunni nations,” and that Iran’s support of Assad has not gone unnoticed. Liberal Egyptian politician Mohamed Anwar Esmat Sadat, nephew of the late President Anwar Sadat, is also concerned. After Anwar Sadat was assassinated over his pro-Western policies, Iran named a street in honor of his assassin.
But Egypt’s leader has spearheaded an “Islamic quartet” of nations to try and resolve the Syrian crisis and Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are all included.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.