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Egypt, Iran may end years of hatred

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By The Los Angeles Times
Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013, 8:32 p.m.

CAIRO — Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived to a red-carpet welcome and a kiss on the cheek by Egypt's President Mohamed Morsy in a historic trip on Tuesday to strengthen relations between the two nations after decades of estrangement and suspicion.

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

Morsy warmly greeted 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 Arab Sunni Muslims.

Those misgivings were quickly evident when a leading cleric condemned Iran's policies. But Morsy and his Muslim Brotherhood are intent on restoring Egypt's stature as a leading regional power.

Iran views Egypt 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,” Ahmadinejad was quoted by Iranian state media. “If Tehran and Cairo see more eye-to-eye on regional and international issues, many (issues) will change.”

In Cairo to attend a summit, Ahmadinejad is the first Iranian leader to visit there 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 the same year by Mubarak's predecessor Anwar Sadat. In the years before his downfall, Mubarak, a staunch U.S. ally, allowed informal exchanges between Egypt and Iran, but rebuffed overtures for a thaw.

The exuberant Ahmadinejad once was praised by many Egyptians for his defiance of the West. But since the revolution in Egypt has given 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 liberties and protesters.

“Iran-Egypt relations are so complicated and deep that they will not be solved by one trip from the Iranian president,” said Masoud Salimi, a political analyst in Tehran. “We should not expect any breakthroughs. But there will be talks about the Syrian crisis that may bear fruit toward finding a solution.”

The three-day visit comes as Ahmadinejad and Morsy face potent challenges to their leaderships.

Ahmadinejad's power, notably in foreign policy, has been scaled back in recent months by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader. Morsy has been trying to suppress days of protests against his rule that have killed more than 50 people and questioned the Muslim Brotherhood's hold on the government.

Ahmadinejad is in Cairo for a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, certain to highlight the differences between him and Morsy on Syria. Morsy has sided with Gulf Arab nations in support of overthrowing Syria's President Bashar Assad — a possible outcome that could upset Iran's ties with the militant groups Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

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