Egypt’s top cleric Ahmed al-Tayyeb told visiting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Tuesday to not interfere in the affairs of Bahrain or the Gulf and to uphold the rights of his country’s Sunni minority.
In a statement, Tayyeb, the imam of the prestigious Sunni Muslim Al-Azhar institute in Cairo, also denounced what he described as the “spread of Shiism in Sunni lands.”
Soon after Al-Azhar’s statement, Ahmadinejad said in a press conference that his visit to Cairo signals a new phase of relations between Tehran and Cairo.
Ahmadinejad arrived in Cairo Tuesday to attend the Islamic Solidarity Organization conference, a step that marks the first visit of an Iranian president to Egypt in 34 years.
Cairo-Tehran ties not at Gulf’s expense
Meanwhile, Egypt will not improve its ties with Iran at the expense of undermining Gulf Arab security, Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr said on Tuesday.
“The security of Gulf countries is a red line for Egypt,” Amr said on the eve of an Islamic summit, in a bid to reassure Sunni Arab nations in the Gulf wary of a rapprochement with Shiite Iran.
“Egypt’s relations with any country, particularly Gulf nations, will not be made at the expense of their security,” he said.
President Mohammed Mursi's administration wants to safeguard relations with Gulf Arab states that are supporting Cairo’s battered state finances and are deeply suspicious of Iran.
Mursi wants to preserve ties with the United States, the source of $1.3 billion in aid each year to the influential Egyptian military.
Mursi’s government has established close ties with Hamas, a movement backed by Iran and shunned by the West because of its hostility to Israel, but its priority is addressing Egypt's deep economic problems.
“The restoration of full relations with Iran in this period is difficult, despite the warmth in ties ... because of many problems including the Syrian crisis and Cairo’s links with the Gulf states, Israel and the United States,” said one former Egyptian diplomat.
Speaking to Reuters on the sidelines of preparatory meetings for the two-day Islamic summit, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said he was optimistic that ties could grow closer.
“We are gradually improving. We have to be a little bit patient. I'm very hopeful about the expansion of the bilateral relationship,” he said. Asked where he saw room for closer ties, he said: “Trade and economics.”
Ahmadinejad’s visit to Egypt follows Mursi’s visit to Iran in August for a summit of the Non-Aligned Movement.
Obstacles to fuel ties
Mursi kissed Ahmadinejad as he disembarked from his plane at Cairo airport, footage broadcast by Egyptian state television showed.
At the airport the two leaders discussed ways of boosting relations between their countries and resolving the Syrian crisis “without resorting to military intervention,” Egyptian state media reported.
Egypt is concerned by Iran’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is trying to crush an uprising inspired by the revolt that swept Mubarak from power two years ago.
Egypt’s overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim population is broadly supportive of the uprising against Assad’s Alawite-led administration.
Salehi stessed the importance of Muslim unity when he met Tayeb at al-Azhar last month.
Egypt and Iran have taken opposite courses since the late 1970s. Egypt, under Mubarak’s predecessor Anwar Sadat, concluded a peace treaty with Israel in 1979 and became a close ally of the United States and Europe. Iran from 1979 turned into a center of opposition to Western influence in the Middle East.
Symbolically, Iran named a street in Tehran after the Islamist who led the 1981 assassination of Sadat.
Egypt gave asylum and a state funeral to Iran’s exiled Shah Reza Pahlavi, who was overthrown by the 1979 Iranian revolution. He is buried in a medieval Cairo mosque alongside his ex-brother-in-law, Egypt’s last king, Farouk.