CAIRO //The long frosty relations between Egypt and Iran entered a slow thaw yesterday after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became the first Iranian president to visit Egypt since the 1979 revolution.
President Mohammed Morsi's warm greeting for Mr Ahmadinejad, including a kiss on each cheek during a red-carpet welcome at the airport, underlined Egypt's growing foreign policy ambitions since the downfall of Hosni Mubarak two years ago.
The leaders held immediate talks on Syria's civil war and on "how to end the bloodshed in Syria ... without military intervention", the Mena news agency reported. Egypt and Iran have been starkly at odds on Syria, with Egypt supporting the rebels and Iran standing by its last ally in the Middle East despite a death toll that risen higher than 60,000, according to the United Nations.
Mr Ahmadinejad's Cairo trip mirrors Mr Morsi's participation in last summer's Non-Aligned Conference in Tehran. The Egyptian leader's historic visit to Iran signalled a more independent post-Mubarak foreign policy and initially dismayed the United States.
But Mr Morsi soon embarrassed his hosts in Tehran by declaring it was an "ethical duty" to support the uprising in Syria, Iran's sole and cherished Arab ally.
The rebuff showed Mr Morsi's strategy of broadening Egypt's foreign policy interactions, venturing where Mubarak refused to go, while keeping the country's important ties to the West intact. The US annually supplies Egypt with US$1.3 billion (Dh4.7bn) of military aid.
"This important visit should have happened a long time ago," said Mohamed Shaker, Egypt's former ambassador to the United Kingdom and chairman of the Egyptian Council on Foreign Affairs. "Egypt can play a powerful role in solving many of the region's problems, especially the ones involving Iran. It shouldn't be that these problems are only debated by the Security Council."
Mr Ahmadinejad is also facing disturbances back at home. Just hours before he left for Cairo, he was dealt a humiliating blow by his hardline rivals. One of his closest and most controversial aides - Tehran's notorious former prosecutor, Saeed Mortazavi - was arrested on unspecified charges.
Mr Mortazavi played a central role in stamping out dissent after Mr Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election in 2009. He was dubbed "the butcher of the press" for shutting down reformist newspapers and overseeing the detention of dozens of reformist journalists.
A parliamentary probe two years ago found Mr Mortazavi responsible for the deaths by torture of at least three anti-government protesters. A defiant Mr Ahmadinejad promptly appointed him head of Iran's wealthy social security fund. But the timing of Mr Mortazavi's arrest late on Monday suggests it was linked to Iran's corrosive internal power struggle rather than to his abuse of human rights.
Mr Ahmadinejad was ostensibly visiting Cairo to attend a summit by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, which takes place today and tomorrow, but he met with Mr Morsi for 20 minutes yesterday to discuss the civil war in Syria, according to the Associated Press.
The Iranian president will also meet Ahmed Tayyeb, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Egypt's 1,000-year-old mosque and university, and tour the Pyramids of Giza, officials said.
Mehdi Khalaji, an Iran analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, saw Mr Ahmadinejad's visit as more of a "show" put on to rattle the US and Israel than a step toward full-fledged rapprochement.
"Iran is eager to portray the Arab Spring as part of an Islamic awakening and that it can have normal relations with Egypt after Mubarak," he said. "But deep down, there are a lot of disagreements between Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood about Syria, about religion, and Egypt's relationship with Saudi Arabia and Qatar."
Yet, Mr Khalaji said, they both had foreign policy clout to gain from a perception that they had inroads with each other. "It's all about foreign policy and using each other as leverage in the region," he said.
Mr Ahmadinejad's visit was historic because Egypt and Iran formally severed ties after the 1979 Islamic Revolution when Cairo offered exile to Iran's deposed shah.
Relations further deteriorated in the 1980s, when Iran named a street and put up a mural in honour of one of the assassins who killed Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian president who made peace with Israel. In the years since, Mubarak was routinely derided by Tehran as an "American puppet".
Since the January 25, 2011, uprising that unseated Mubarak, Iran has eagerly courted the new government in a bid to reverse its international isolation over a nuclear enrichment programme that is actively opposed by the West and Israel.
"What is happening is Egypt is trying to regain its role in influencing policies in the region and Iran is becoming more pragmatic than it used to be," said Wahib El Miniawy, Egypt's former ambassador to Peru, Venezuela and Japan. "We are two of the biggest countries in the region. It's important to understand each other more."
Egypt could also become an effective mediator in Iran's nuclear dispute, said Noha Bakr, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo.
"Egypt might be viewed by Iran as a fair broker in the game of negotiation," she said. "The fact that President Morsi comes from a an Islamist background and has a similar way of thinking to Ahmadinejad could make Egypt a new mediator."
Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi openly floated the idea of having the next round of nuclear talks with world powers being held in Egypt last month, but the idea was scrapped after Egypt's latest round of political violence which has seen more than 60 people opposing Mr Morsi's presidency killed in street battles with police.
While his record for managing Egypt's declining economy and turbulent political situation at home has left his group, the Muslim Brotherhood, increasingly isolated, Mr Morsi has won plaudits for his foreign policy moves.
His most important accomplishment was brokering a ceasefire between Israel and Gaza after eight days of shelling that led to the deaths of 162 Palestinians and six Israelis in November. But those gains were quickly overshadowed by a presidential decree protecting Mr Morsi's decisions from judicial overview and his choice to rush through a vote on a controversial constitution.
With additional reporting by the Associated Press