The president of Iran tried Thursday to entice Egypt into a new alliance that could reshape the turbulent Middle East, speaking of forging "comprehensive" and "unfettered" relations after decades of distrust.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who arrived in Egypt on Tuesday to attend a two-day Islamic summit hosted by Egypt's Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, is using his visit — the first by an Iranian president in 30 years — to launch a charm offensive to woo Egyptians and their leadership.
He offered to extend cash-strapped Egypt a credit line and investments, though Iran's struggling economy is grappling with a host of international sanctions. He said his government intended to lift visa requirements for Egyptian tourists and businessmen, and he gave a lengthy interview to state television.
A warming of ties between the two regional heavyweights could have uncomfortable repercussions for the United States and its wealthy Gulf allies, giving Iran a foothold to spread its influence in Egypt. In turn, Egypt could gain an avenue to influence the fate of Syria, a key ally of Iran, as well as economic benefits.
The Iranian president used flowery language to project an image of two nations — which haven't had diplomatic ties since 1979 — on the brink of an alliance that would bring them glory and prosperity.
"It is a divine gift to me and the people of Iran that I received the opportunity to visit Egypt," he told a news conference, held at the residence of Iran's chief of mission in Egypt, an opulent mansion in Cairo's upscale Heliopolis district.
He said he expected the volume of bilateral trade to reach $20 billion US annually a decade from now, and anticipated that many of the eight to 10 million Iranians who holiday abroad every year would come to Egypt.
Asked whether Iran would be willing to share its nuclear technology with Egypt, he would only say Tehran would have no objections to co-operating with Egypt in "technological, scientific and technical" fields.
Ahmadinejad's visit came nearly six months after another historic first: a trip by Morsi to Tehran, where disdain for Egypt led the ruling regime to name one of its streets after the ringleader of the assassination team that gunned down President Anwar Sadat in 1981.
Egypt was once closely allied to Iran and its former ruling shah. The two countries severed relations after the 1979 Islamic Revolution brought rule by Shia clerics in Iran and Egypt offered refuge to the deposed shah. Ahmadinejad's visit to Al-Azhar on Tuesday brought him not far from a grandiose Cairo mosque where the shah — despised by Iran's current rulers — is buried.
Relations further deteriorated after Egypt's peace treaty with Israel.
"We love Egypt and no one can take this love away from us," the Iranian president said Thursday. "Even if relations are cut for a hundred years, no one can make us forget each other. It is a love that comes from the heart and has historic roots."
'We love Egypt and no one can take this love away from us.' — Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Gaining a foothold in Egypt would tremendously help Iran's regional prestige at a time when it is struggling to cope with international sanctions over its nuclear program and growing worries that the regime in Syria, its closest Arab ally, may eventually fall and be replaced by a hostile Sunni government.
Egyptian officials insist that the growing ties with Iran are primarily designed to get Tehran to drop, or at least soften, its support for the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and have sought to assure U.S.-allied Gulf Arab states that relations with Iran would never be at their expense.
However, Morsi is desperate to tighten his shaky grip on his nation, with his seven months in office defined by round after round of political violence, a sliding economy and increasing opposition to what his critics see as his attempt to place all powers in his own hands and those of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group from which he hails.
The United States has for decades viewed Iran as its chief Middle East foe and, like Israel, sees its nuclear program as the region's most potent security threat. A move by Cairo toward Iran could bring a deep chill over its ties with Washington, which is worth billions in aid.