CAIRO - The president of the Shi'ite Islamic Republic of Iran
will court Egypt's top Sunni Muslim cleric at al-Azhar university on Tuesday in
a historic trip pointing to Tehran's efforts to improve ties with an Arab state
now run by an Islamist.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be the first
Iranian head of state to visit Egypt since the 1979 Iranian revolution, which
led to a rupture in diplomatic relations between two of the most influential
states in the Middle East. He is due to attend a two-day Islamic summit in Cairo
that begins on Wednesday.
Analysts do not now expect a full restoration
of ties, given Egyptian hostility to Iranian support for embattled Syrian
President Bashar Assad and Cairo's desire not to damage relations with Israel
and the United States.
Ahmadinejad's trip follows a visit to Tehran last
year by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood
movement that was outlawed during the rule of Hosni Mubarak, who was long one of
Washington's closest regional allies.
Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, head of the
1,000-year-old al-Azhar mosque and university, will meet Ahmadinejad at the
campus in medieval Islamic Cairo, al-Azhar's media office said.
Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi stressed the importance of Muslim unity when
he met Sheikh al-Tayeb at al-Azhar last month.
Egypt and Iran have taken
opposite courses since the late 1970s. Egypt, under Mubarak's predecessor Anwar
Sadat, concluded a peace treaty with Israel in 1979 and became a close ally of
the United States and Europe. Iran from 1979 turned into a center of opposition
to Western influence in the Middle East.
Symbolically, Iran named a
street in Tehran after the Islamist who led the 1981 assassination of
Although Egypt's leadership has changed and ties with Tehran have
become more open, analysts say Cairo is also seeking to deepen relations with
Gulf states that are suspicious of Iran, including Qatar, which has provided
vital financial assistance.