President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's historic three-day trip to Egypt, the first in three decades by an Iranian leader, started pleasantly enough on Tuesday.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran arrived in Cairo on Tuesday.
Egypt's president, Mohamed Morsi, greeted Mr. Ahmadinejad with a broad smile during a red-carpet ceremony at a Cairo airport. The two talked about the crisis in Syria and how to improve the relationship between their own countries, which has been in a deep freeze since after the Iranian revolution in 1979.
"Egypt is a very important country in the region and the Islamic Republic of Iran believes it is one of the heavyweights in the Middle East," Iran's foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, told Iran's state-run Islamic Republic News Agency on Tuesday. "We are ready to further strengthen ties."
Then things got testy.
During an afternoon visit to Al-Azhar mosque and university, Egypt's seat of Sunni scholarship, Mr. Ahmadinejad was publicly upbraided at a news conference by his hosts, who accused Shiites of interfering in Arab countries, including Egypt and Bahrain, and of discriminating against Sunnis in Iran, a Shiite-majority country.
As a spokesman for Al-Azhar scolded his guest using divisive sectarian language, an aide to Mr. Ahmadinejad cut in. "We didn't agree on this," he said, as the Iranian leader nodded and replied: "We agreed on unity, brotherhood."
After the news conference, a protester tried to hit Mr. Ahmadinejad with a shoe, according to video of the confrontation by Turkey's Anatolia news agency, which said the assailant was a Syrian, presumably angered at Iran's strong alliance with Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad.
Four people were later arrested for attacking the Iranian leader's motorcade, according to the Web site of Al Ahram, Egypt's state-owned newspaper.
Those public setbacks aside, relations between the two countries have warmed since the toppling of Egypt's former president, Hosni Mubarak, who was deeply hostile to Iran's leadership and portrayed himself to his allies, including the United States, the Persian Gulf monarchies and Israel, as a bulwark against Iranian influence.
The relationship had atrophied over decades, damaged in particular by the Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat's granting of asylum to the deposed Iranian shah, Mohammad-Reza Pahlavi, who was given a state funeral in Cairo in 1980. When Mr. Sadat was assassinated the next year, Iran named a street after his killer, Khaled Islambouli.
Mr. Morsi, an Islamist and Egypt's first elected leader, promised a new direction for foreign policy that he said would be more independent than his predecessors' and would reassert Egypt's historical leadership role. Extending a hand to Iran was seen as part of an effort to improve ties with regional powers and, more important, to broker a solution to the war in Syria.
Iranian officials were even more eager to mend the relationship, speaking of Egypt and Iran as the core of an axis of regional military powers. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has been promoting the idea that the recent Arab uprisings were inspired by the Iranian revolution of 1979.
Source: The New York Times | KAREEM FAHIM and MAYY EL SHEIKH