President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in Cairo on Tuesday for the first visit by an Iranian leader in more than three decades, marking a historic departure from years of frigid ties between the two regional heavyweights.
Egypt's Islamist President Mohammed Morsi gave Ahmadinejad a red-carpet welcome on the tarmac at Cairo airport, shaking the Iranian's hand and exchanging a kiss on each cheek as a military honor guard stood at attention.
The two leaders then held a 20-minute talk that focused on the civil war in Syria, security officials said. Iran is a close ally of the regime in Damascus, while Egypt is among those that have called on Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down. The discussions were attended by the Egyptian president's adviser, Essam al-Haddad, his spokesman Yasser Ali and a high level diplomat, the officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
Ahmadinejad's three-day visit is the latest sign of improved relations between Sunni power Egypt and the Shiite power since the 2011 uprising that ousted longtime Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and brought an Islamist-run government to power in Cairo.
The trip is likely to be closely watched by Sunni Gulf nations, chief among them Saudi Arabia, who is staunchly opposed to Iran's regional policies and deeply wary of the Shiite nation.
Egypt's fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, from which Morsi hails, has signaled that relations with Iran could one day be upgraded to full diplomatic ties. The president himself, however, has stressed that the security of the Sunni Gulf nations — of which Egypt has relied upon for financial aid to help prop up its faltering economy — is directly linked to Cairo's own.
During his visit to Egypt, Ahmadinejad is scheduled to meet with Grand Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the head of Al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world's premier Islamic institution. He is also scheduled to attend the summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Cairo, which starts Wednesday.
Security officials said Ahmadinejad is also going to tour the Pyramids in Giza. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to release the information.
Formerly had close relations
Egypt and Iran once had close ties, but saw their relations deteriorate after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and Egypt's peace treaty with Israel.
Morsi visited Tehran last year to attend an international summit in the first visit by an Egyptian leader to Iran in years. He held a brief one-on-one talk with Ahmadinejad then and discussed the Syrian crisis, which has killed more than 60,000 people. But Morsi also used the opportunity in Tehran to lash out at Iran's ally, calling the Damascus regime "oppressive" in televised remarks.
Egypt's leader has spearheaded a quartet of nations to try and resolve the Syrian crisis that includes Iran, as well as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which are two of the most vocal critics of the Syrian president.
While Saudi Arabia has largely abstained from the group's meetings in an apparent snub to Iran's policies toward Syria, Egyptian officials say they will try to revive those talks on the sidelines of this week's OIC summit.
On Tuesday, Egypt's hardline Daawa Salafiya, which is the foundation of the main Salafi political Al-Nour Party, released a statement calling on Morsi to confront Ahmadinejad on Tehran's support for the Syrian regime and also make clear that "Egypt is committed to the protection of all Sunni nations." Salafis in Egypt largely follow the hardline Wahhabi school of thought that predominates in Saudi Arabia.