CAIRO – Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad 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.
A warming of ties between the two regional heavyweights could have uncomfortable repercussions for the U.S. 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 arrived in Egypt on Tuesday to attend a two-day Islamic summit hosted by Egypt's president, Islamist Mohammed Morsi.
Ahmadinejad's visit is the first by an Iranian president in 30 years and he used it to launch a charm offensive to woo Egyptians and their leadership. He offered to extend cash-strapped Egypt a credit line and investments. He said his government intended to lift visa requirements for Egyptian tourists and businessmen and he gave a lengthy interview to state television.
In a 90-minute news conference on Thursday, he went the farthest in trying to lure Egypt into a strategic alliance, using 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 the 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 annually a decade from now and anticipated that many of the eight to 10 million Iranians who holiday abroad every year will come to Egypt.
He dodged a question on whether Iran would be willing to share its nuclear technology with Egypt, saying only that Tehran would have no objections to cooperating with Egypt in "technological, scientific and technical" fields.
"Who deserves to benefit from our science more than our brothers (in Egypt)," he said.
Ahmadinejad, who steps down in the summer when his second term in office ends, played down a public admonishment by Egypt's most prominent cleric, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed al-Tayeb, who warned Iran on Tuesday against spreading its Shiite faith in the predominantly Sunni Muslim Middle East and demanded it not meddle in the affairs of Gulf Arab states.
He said too much was being made of al-Tayeb's comments, adding: "The devils wish to see the faithful and believers distracted by short sighted goals and marginal issues."
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 Shiite 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."
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.
Close relations with Egypt would also cast Iran in a positive light -- a Shiite nation that is able to maintain normal and beneficial ties to a country that his home to the world's foremost seat of Sunni learning, Al-Azhar.
Ahmadinejad, however, dismissed the idea Iran wanted improved ties with Egypt to break its isolation. "If we apply this logic, then there will be no friendships between nations. We are in this relation for the sake of both parties," he said.
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.
Morsi, however, 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 Egyptian leader has made the conflict in Syria his pet foreign policy project in the hope of improving his standing at home and establishing himself as a regional player. Last year, he created a working group of four nations -- Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey -- to work toward ending the Syrian civil war. But Saudi Arabia, which has traditionally viewed Iran with suspicion, has pulled out after attending one meeting and the group has yet to show any tangible progress.
The Saudis' withdrawal underlined the gulf between the mostly Sunni Gulf Arab nations and Iran on Syria as well as the depth of the Shiite-Sunni fault line in the region. With the exception of tiny but super-rich Qatar -- which has poured billions of dollars into Morsi's emptying coffers -- the Gulf Arab states have furthermore made little effort to conceal their distaste for Egypt's new Islamist leadership, in part out of fear they would export their revolution to their own nations.
Against this background, Morsi may have found that a rapport with Iran could be useful to counterbalance the Gulf nations.
But it is unclear how far he can go in this direction.
So far Washington has remained publicly silent, but it would likely be highly alarmed if Egypt, one of its closest Arab allies, did cozy up to Iran.
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.
Also, Iran is not expected to offer much to Egypt by way of financial aid or assistance since it is hurting from the international sanctions, with its oil revenues and currency, the rial, both down by more than 40 percent as a result.
Moreover, close relations with Iran could produce a backlash at home by Morsi's Islamist allies and a large segment of the mostly Sunni Muslim population who resent what they see as Iran's bid to spread its influence in the Middle East.