Iranian leader concludes Cairo visit

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad concluded his historic visit to Cairo on 8 February, marking the first time an Iranian leader has visited Egypt in 34 years.

The landmark trip was not without controversy however and the Iranian president received a mixed response. It was reported that Grand Sheik Ahmed al-Tayeb criticised Ahmadinejad during his visit to Al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world's premier Islamic institution, on 5 February. Apparently the Shiite Iranian president was chastised for Iran’s role in what the senior Sunni cleric called the “spread of Shiism in Sunni lands.”

The top Sunni cleric also called on Iran to refrain from interfering “in the affairs of Gulf states,” such as Bahrain, where Iran stands accused of supporting dissent against the ruling Sunni monarchy. The leader of the 1,000-year-old seat of religious learning urged Iran to recognise Bahrain as a "sisterly Arab nation".

Later on 5 February Ahmadinejad was nearly struck with a shoe thrown by a man furious at Iran’s support for the Syrian government. The incident took place at Cairo's al-Hussein mosque and the shoe-thrower “was immediately detained”. Striking someone with the sole of one’s shoe is a common sign of disrespect in Arab countries.

The ongoing civil war in Syria was high on the agenda for Ahmadinejad and Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi during the Iranian president's visit. The two leaders held talks aimed at resolving the Syrian conflict "without resorting to military intervention", according to Egyptian state media. The Syrian situation is complicated by the fact that Iran is a close ally of Syria’s president Bashar Assad while Egypt's overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim population is seen to be broadly supportive of the uprising against Assad.

The trip brought about positive results too. Morsi says he will return to Tehran following his first visit last August, and Ahmadinejad announced that Iran plans to waive visas for Egyptians. There was also much talk of boosting bilateral ties between both countries, following decades of mistrust.

During the three day presidential visit Ahmadinejad participated in the summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. He also attended celebrations in Cairo to commemorate the 34th anniversary of the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, an event which precipitated a rapid deterioration in ties between the two countries in 1979.  Relations suffered greatly following the subsequent peace treaty that Egypt signed with Iran’s nemesis Israel, and matters were not helped by the stance of the ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak who saw to it that Islamists – including his successor Morsi – were suppressed during his 30-year rule.

Although relations are warming between Iran and Egypt under Morsi’s presidency, analysts believe that a full restoration of diplomatic ties between the two countries is hindered by Egypt’s close relationship with the Gulf States, Israel and the US – all enemies of Iran. The Egyptian military receives €1.3 billion in annual funds from Washington. The Sunni Gulf nations, in particular Saudi Arabia, are strongly opposed to Iran’s regional policies. Likewise Egypt's relations with Israel are underlined by the fact that Morsi played a pivotal role in helping to secure peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian militant Islamist organisation Hamas last November.