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Ahmadinejad makes first Cairo visit

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TEHRAN — President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in Cairo on Tuesday as Iran’s first leader to visit Egypt since the two nations ended diplomatic relations in 1980, another sign of the regional shifts triggered by the Arab Spring.

But although the countries’ ties have thawed since the overthrow of Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak, key differences — including opposing views on the conflict in Syria — make the prospect of fully restored relations distant.

Those differences were momentarily put aside as Ahmadinejad descended from his plane and was greeted by kisses from Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s Islamist president. The two walked down a red carpet, flanked by government dignitaries as both countries’ national anthems played. Inside the Cairo airport, according to state-run news media, they discussed ways to strengthen relations and resolve the Syrian crisis.

Iran cut off diplomatic relations with Egypt in 1980 over the latter’s recognition of Israel, and Mubarak, who cultivated ties with the West, was deeply suspicious of Tehran’s influence. But Morsi traveled to Iran in August for a Non-Aligned Movement meeting, and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has begun advancing the idea that Iran’s 1979 revolution was, as he put it last summer, “a role model for these popular movements” that have risen up during the Arab Spring.

As he left Tehran for Cairo, where he is scheduled to attend an Islamic conference, Ahmadinejad told reporters that his purpose was to “try to prepare the grounds for cooperation between the two great nations of Iran and Egypt.”

The countries, both of which are seeking wider regional influence, have reasons to build relations.

Their governments share opposition to Israel and intense interest in the Syrian conflict. Morsi, seeking to blaze a foreign-policy trail starkly different from Mubarak’s, has vowed to make domestic and international decisions independent of pressure from Washington. Iran, a Shiite-majority country in a region where Sunni Islam is ascendant, is looking to forge new alliances as its traditional ones — a disintegrating Syria and the Palestinian militant movement Hamas, which has distanced itself from Iran — falter.

The toppling of Arab dictators and rise of Islamist political parties have also cost Iran some of its regional cachet as a Muslim country willing to stand up to the West, said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council in Washington.

“The street isn’t as far removed from the state anymore,” Parsi said, referring to the democratic election of leaders such as Morsi, who long held senior positions in the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni organization. “So far, the rise of these Islamic parties has not lived up to Iran’s hopes or expectations. They have come to power not to be led by Iran but to lead themselves.”

Analysts say Morsi is eager to avoid stoking opposition from even stauncher Egyptian Islamists or unnerving Iran-wary allies such as the United States and Persian Gulf monarchies, and is likely to play down the importance of the Iranian president’s visit, analysts say.

On Tuesday, the Salafist Dawa, a fundamentalist umbrella group, called on Morsi to block Ahmedinejad from visiting Egyptian mosques and other landmarks, including Tahrir Square. Morsi must “reaffirm the Sunnism of Egypt and . . . reject Shiism and its tools,” Abdel Moneim El-Shahat, a spokesman for the group, said in a statement.

Ahmadinejad was forced to flee the ancient al-Hussein mosque in downtown Cairo after a Syrian protester threw his shoes at him, the Associated Press reported. Later Tuesday, anti-Iranian protesters raised their shoes up while blocking the main gates to Al-Azhar, the Sunni world’s most prestigious religious institution, where Egypt’s most prominent cleric chided Ahmadinejad for interfering in the affairs of Sunni nations.

The most immediate divergence between the nations is their view of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which Iran supports and Egypt condemns. In his visit to Tehran last summer, Morsi said in a speech that the Syrian uprising was a “revolution against an oppressive regime."

Still, some observers say Egypt is looking to maintain at least cordial ties with the Islamic republic, which it recognizes as a major regional player and worthwhile economic partner.

“We have two Islamic axes today: One led by Saudi Arabia with the blessing of the United States, and one led by Iran, which has its supporters — Hamas” and the Lebanese militant group and political party Hezbollah, said Mona Makram-Ebeid, a member of parliament who was one of the few Egyptians who visited Iran as part of a pan-Arab delegation sponsored by Jordan a decade ago.

“These two are both fighting for influence in Egypt,” she said, and the Morsi government has been careful to manage relations with both.

But other analysts say Morsi’s basic calculations on Iran will be driven by economic considerations. Egypt, whose wobbling economy relies heavily on U.S. and Saudi support, is not in a position to risk losing access to that aid.

“Once people started to put together the cost Egypt would incur for cozying up to Iran, I don’t think there would be much support for a close relationship,” said Joshua Stacher, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars who specializes in Egypt.

Washington should not be too worried about Egypt and other Arab nations moving closer to Iran, Stacher said.

“It’s okay for these countries to converse and try to establish ties,” he said. “But they’re starting from zero, so there isn’t going to be an alliance overnight.”

Hauslohner reported from Cairo.

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