CAIRO -- Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi plans to visit Iran this month for an international summit in what would mark the highest level official contact between the two nations in more than 30 years, according to Egypt's state news agency.
The MENA agency, quoting a source in Morsi’s office, said the newly elected Islamist president is expected to attend the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran on Aug. 30. The decision follows an invitation hand-delivered to Morsi nearly two weeks ago in Cairo by Iranian Vice President Hamid Baghaei.
Official relations between Egypt and Iran -- dominant players in the Middle East for generations -– broke off following the Iranian Revolution and Cairo’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel. Iran has been trying to repair the rift, but former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a strong U.S. ally who was toppled in an uprising last year, refused to restore full diplomatic ties.
Morsi’s expected trip potentially changes that dynamic and gives Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a public relations bump at a time when Tehran is facing increased international pressure on its nuclear program and over its ties to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Conservative Islamists in Egypt have been urging Morsi, a former leader in the Muslim Brotherhood, to strengthen bonds with Shiite Muslim-dominated Iran. But Morsi faces pressure from the U.S. and Sunni Muslim Persian Gulf states, such as Saudi Arabia, that have focused on isolating Tehran. Egypt relies heavily on $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid and is awaiting billions of dollars in grants from gulf nations.
But the prospect of Morsi landing in Tehran is another stark indication of the political tremors echoing across North Africa and the Middle East since the Arab Spring revolutions began in Tunisia in late 2010.
Egypt is a member of the Non-Aligned Movement, and Morsi's role would be to transfer the rotating presidency of the organization to Tehran. It is not certain whether Morsi would hold direct talks with Ahmadinejad or other Iranian leaders.
"The U.S. would not be happy if Egypt improved relations with Iran; neither would the gulf countries," Emad Gad, an analyst at Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, told The Times this month. "Morsi does not have it in him at this point to defy these strategic allies, especially since he needs their support and aid."
-- Jeffrey Fleishman
Photo: Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, center, prays at a mosque in the Fayoum district southwest of Cairo in July. Credit: Egyptian president's office / Agence France-Presse