AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Now to Egypt, where Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, made a landmark visit today. The trip is the latest sign of the thawing of relations between the two formerly hostile nations. But Ahmadinejad wasn't welcomed by everyone. He was dressed down publicly by a Sunni cleric and after a press conference today, he was nearly smacked by a shoe reportedly by a man angry over Iran's backing of the Syrian's regime. NPR's Leila Fadel sent this report.
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LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad received a red carpet welcome as Egypt's president, Mohammed Morsi, greeted him on the tarmac at Cairo International Airport with a kiss on each cheek.
Under former president Hosni Mubarak, a visit like this would never have happened. The two nations' contentious relationship stems from Iran's rejection of Egypt's peace treaty with Israel, Egypt's support of Iraq during its eight-year war with Iran, and the fact that Cairo welcomed the shah of Iran when he fled into exile in 1979. In 1981, the Iranian government renamed a street in Tehran in honor of the Egyptian soldier who assassinated Anwar Sadat. Ahmadinejad's visit comes a few months after President Morsi made a trip to Tehran where he publicly urged the Iranians to stop supporting the embattled Syrian regime in its war against rebel forces.
While Ahmadinejad's visit here is historic, observers say a flourishing relationship between Iran and Egypt remains unlikely. Michael Wahid Hanna of the Century Foundation.
MICHAEL WAHID HANNA: I think it's important, again, to think about the regional climate. We have a raging civil war in Syria that has sectarian dimensions that is at the moment a huge hurdle to improving Egyptian-Iranian ties.
FADEL: Hanna adds that the relationship between the two nations is further limited by Egyptian fears that Shiite-led Iran is seeking regional hegemony. The overwhelming majority of Egypt's Muslims are Sunni. Sectarian tensions were on full display during the first day of Ahmadinejad's visit. He met briefly with Egypt's president and then with the Grand Sheik of Al-Azhar, the highest institute of Islamic learning in Egypt. In a press conference that followed the meeting, an adviser to the sheik slammed Iran for its support of Syria's regime and its treatment of Sunni Muslims in Iran.
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FADEL: Ahmadinejad stood nearby and squirmed, visibly uncomfortable. Further complicating the relationship between Cairo and Tehran are Egypt's Arab allies in the Persian Gulf region which view Iran with hostility. Again, Michael Wahid Hanna of the Century Foundation.
HANNA: Egypt is reliant on the Gulf now for much needed financial and economic assistance, and I think their views will be an important factor for Egypt's new rulers in terms of how they are going to re-establish ties with Iran and how far that relationship can go.
FADEL: Despite the criticism, senior members of Egypt's powerful Muslim Brotherhood said that forging a relationship with Iran is in the interest of Egypt and the region even if they don't agree on most things. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.