Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used an Islamic summit in Cairo to try to thaw frigid relations with Egypt by meeting with President Mohamed Morsi and to stress Iran’s support of the Palestinians by meeting with Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
It was the first visit to Cairo by an Iranian leader in 34 years, but Egypt downplayed the significance of the meeting, saying it was routine to entertain visiting foreign leaders. Egypt has many reasons to keep Iran at arms length, particularly considering how much of an international pariah Ahmadinejad has become, especially to the U.S. and Israel, two nations with whom Morsi is keen on maintaining cordial relations.
But Ahmadinejad was not in a downplaying mood, saying he wanted a stronger alliance with Egypt and even offering the financially struggling nation a loan. He announced that Egyptian tourists and merchants would no longer require visas to visit Iran.
This renewed engagement between the two countries comes as the White House announced that President Obama would be visiting Israel, Jordan and the West Bank next month, likely on March 20, re-inserting himself into the tense atmosphere in the region in an effort to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which failed miserably the first time he tried early in his first term.
Egypt, with a population of 83 million, and Iran, with a population of 75 million, are the two most populous nations in the region, but their relations were cut off in 1979, when then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat entered a peace treaty with Israel and Iran was under the hostile throes of the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini. Over the years, the relations grew worse after Iran named a street in Tehran’s business district after Khaled Islambouli, the ringleader of the group responsible for assassinating Sadat. A mural of Islambouli added insult to injury. On the other side, Egypt offered asylum to the despised Shah of Iran after he fled his country.
In addition to concerns about how others would view Morsi’s engagement with Ahmadinejad, there is also the matter of religion. Many Egyptians still look with suspicion on Shi’ite Islamist Iran because Egypt is a predominantly Sunni Muslim nation. Also, Egypt is not pleased about Iran’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
As usual, Ahmadinejad blamed their frosty relations on outside forces.
“We must all understand that the only option is to set up this alliance because it is in the interests of the Egyptian and Iranian peoples and other nations of the region,” the official MENA news agency quoted him as telling Egyptian journalists.
“There are those striving to prevent these two great countries from coming together despite the fact that the region’s problems require this meeting, especially the Palestinian question,” Ahmadinejad said.
According to the Al-Ahram daily, Ahmadinejad offered to lend money to Egypt even though Iran is still suffering under international economic sanctions over its nuclear program.
“I have said previously that we can offer a big credit line to the Egyptian brothers, and many services,” he said.
Ahmadinejad said the Iranian economy had been affected by sanctions but it is a “great economy” that was witnessing “positive matters,” saying exports were increasing gradually.
“No change happened in the last two years but discussions between us developed and grew, and His Excellency President Mohamed Morsi visited Iran and met us, as he met the Iranian foreign minister. And we previously contacted Egypt to know about what is happening with Syrian affairs,” he said.
In his meeting with Palestinian leader Abbas, Ahmadinejad emphasized that Iran will defend the rights of the Palestinian people at all international organizations, according to the Tehran Times. He said that as Israel has become very weak, a bright future will await Palestinians if they remain adamant in their resistance struggle.
Abbas responded, “The Iranian brothers have stood by the oppressed Palestinian people under all circumstances and the Palestinian nation appreciates this help.”