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Iranian leader visits Egypt in warming of ties

  • Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, center, attends a press conference with Egyptian Sunni clerics at Al-Azhar headquarters in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013. Egypt's most prominent Muslim cleric, the sheik of Al-Azhar, has warned Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against interfering in Arab Gulf countries or trying to spread Shiite influence. Ahmadinejad, on a landmark visit to Egypt on Tuesday, received an uneasy reception from Ahmed el-Tayeb at Al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world's foremost Islamic institution.(AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

    Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, center, attends a press conference with Egyptian Sunni clerics at Al-Azhar headquarters in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013. Egypt's most prominent Muslim cleric, the sheik of Al-Azhar, has warned Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against interfering in Arab Gulf countries or trying to spread Shiite influence. Ahmadinejad, on a landmark visit to Egypt on Tuesday, received an uneasy reception from Ahmed el-Tayeb at Al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world's foremost Islamic institution.(AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

  • Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, center, attends a press conference with Egyptian Sunni clerics at Al-Azhar headquarters in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013. Egypt's most prominent Muslim cleric, the sheik of al-Azhar, has warned Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against interfering in Arab Gulf countries or trying to spread Shiite influence. Ahmadinejad, on a landmark visit to Egypt on Tuesday, received an uneasy reception from Ahmed el-Tayeb at al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world's foremost Islamic institution.(AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

    Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, center, attends a press conference with Egyptian Sunni clerics at Al-Azhar headquarters in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013. Egypt's most prominent Muslim cleric, the sheik of al-Azhar, has warned Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against interfering in Arab Gulf countries or trying to spread Shiite influence. Ahmadinejad, on a landmark visit to Egypt on Tuesday, received an uneasy reception from Ahmed el-Tayeb at al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world's foremost Islamic institution.(AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

  •  Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, left, shakes hands with Grand Sheik Ahmed al-Tayeb, the head of Al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world's premier Islamic institution during their meeting at Al Azhar headquarters in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013. Once close, Egypt and Iran severed their relations after the 1979 Islamic Revolution when Cairo offered exile to Iran's deposed shah. Relations further deteriorated after Egypt's peace treaty with Israel. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

    Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, left, shakes hands with Grand Sheik Ahmed al-Tayeb, the head of Al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world's premier Islamic institution during their meeting at Al Azhar headquarters in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013. Once close, Egypt and Iran severed their relations after the 1979 Islamic Revolution when Cairo offered exile to Iran's deposed shah. Relations further deteriorated after Egypt's peace treaty with Israel. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

  • Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, center, talks during a presser following his meeting with Grand Sheik Ahmed al-Tayeb, the head of Al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world's premier Islamic institution, not pictured, at Al Azhar headquarters in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013. Egypt's most prominent Muslim cleric, the sheik of Al-Azhar, has warned Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against interfering in Arab Gulf countries or trying to spread Shiite influence. Ahmadinejad, on a landmark visit to Egypt on Tuesday, received an uneasy reception from Ahmed el-Tayeb at Al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world's foremost Islamic institution.(AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

    Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, center, talks during a presser following his meeting with Grand Sheik Ahmed al-Tayeb, the head of Al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world's premier Islamic institution, not pictured, at Al Azhar headquarters in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013. Egypt's most prominent Muslim cleric, the sheik of Al-Azhar, has warned Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against interfering in Arab Gulf countries or trying to spread Shiite influence. Ahmadinejad, on a landmark visit to Egypt on Tuesday, received an uneasy reception from Ahmed el-Tayeb at Al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world's foremost Islamic institution.(AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

  • In this image released by the Egyptian Presidency, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, center, and Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, center right, participate in an arrival ceremony at the airport in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013. Ahmadinejad arrived in Cairo on Tuesday for the first visit by an Iranian leader in more than three decades, marking a historic departure from years of frigid ties between the two regional heavyweights.(AP Photo/Egyptian Presidency)

    In this image released by the Egyptian Presidency, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, center, and Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, center right, participate in an arrival ceremony at the airport in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013. Ahmadinejad arrived in Cairo on Tuesday for the first visit by an Iranian leader in more than three decades, marking a historic departure from years of frigid ties between the two regional heavyweights.(AP Photo/Egyptian Presidency)

  • Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, center, waves to Egyptian worshippers after he visits the shrine of Imam Hussein, the grandson of Islam's Prophet Mohammad, in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013. Egypt's most prominent Muslim cleric, the sheik of Al-Azhar, has warned Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against interfering in Arab Gulf countries or trying to spread Shiite influence. Ahmadinejad, on a landmark visit to Egypt on Tuesday, received an uneasy reception from Ahmed el-Tayeb at Al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world's foremost Islamic institution.(AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

    Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, center, waves to Egyptian worshippers after he visits the shrine of Imam Hussein, the grandson of Islam's Prophet Mohammad, in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013. Egypt's most prominent Muslim cleric, the sheik of Al-Azhar, has warned Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against interfering in Arab Gulf countries or trying to spread Shiite influence. Ahmadinejad, on a landmark visit to Egypt on Tuesday, received an uneasy reception from Ahmed el-Tayeb at Al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world's foremost Islamic institution.(AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

  • Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, center, attends a press conference with Egyptian Sunni clerics at Al-Azhar headquarters in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013. Egypt's most prominent Muslim cleric, the sheik of Al-Azhar, has warned Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against interfering in Arab Gulf countries or trying to spread Shiite influence. Ahmadinejad, on a landmark visit to Egypt on Tuesday, received an uneasy reception from Ahmed el-Tayeb at Al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world's foremost Islamic institution.(AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
  • Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, center, attends a press conference with Egyptian Sunni clerics at Al-Azhar headquarters in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013. Egypt's most prominent Muslim cleric, the sheik of al-Azhar, has warned Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against interfering in Arab Gulf countries or trying to spread Shiite influence. Ahmadinejad, on a landmark visit to Egypt on Tuesday, received an uneasy reception from Ahmed el-Tayeb at al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world's foremost Islamic institution.(AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
  •  Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, left, shakes hands with Grand Sheik Ahmed al-Tayeb, the head of Al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world's premier Islamic institution during their meeting at Al Azhar headquarters in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013. Once close, Egypt and Iran severed their relations after the 1979 Islamic Revolution when Cairo offered exile to Iran's deposed shah. Relations further deteriorated after Egypt's peace treaty with Israel. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
  • Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, center, talks during a presser following his meeting with Grand Sheik Ahmed al-Tayeb, the head of Al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world's premier Islamic institution, not pictured, at Al Azhar headquarters in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013. Egypt's most prominent Muslim cleric, the sheik of Al-Azhar, has warned Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against interfering in Arab Gulf countries or trying to spread Shiite influence. Ahmadinejad, on a landmark visit to Egypt on Tuesday, received an uneasy reception from Ahmed el-Tayeb at Al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world's foremost Islamic institution.(AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
  • In this image released by the Egyptian Presidency, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, center, and Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, center right, participate in an arrival ceremony at the airport in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013. Ahmadinejad arrived in Cairo on Tuesday for the first visit by an Iranian leader in more than three decades, marking a historic departure from years of frigid ties between the two regional heavyweights.(AP Photo/Egyptian Presidency)
  • Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, center, waves to Egyptian worshippers after he visits the shrine of Imam Hussein, the grandson of Islam's Prophet Mohammad, in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013. Egypt's most prominent Muslim cleric, the sheik of Al-Azhar, has warned Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against interfering in Arab Gulf countries or trying to spread Shiite influence. Ahmadinejad, on a landmark visit to Egypt on Tuesday, received an uneasy reception from Ahmed el-Tayeb at Al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world's foremost Islamic institution.(AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Cairo yesterday, the first by an Iranian leader in more than three decades, highlights efforts by Egypt’s Islamist leader to thaw long frigid ties between the two regional heavyweights.

Although the official welcome was warm, there was unscripted discord from Sunni protesters angry over Iran’s support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, as well as decades of sectarian animosity between Shiite-led Iran and the region’s Sunni majority.

At one point, Ahmadinejad was forced to flee an ancient mosque in downtown Cairo after a Syrian protester took off his shoes and threw them at him.

Later, anti-Iranian protesters raised their shoes up while blocking the main gates to Al-Azhar, the Sunni world’s most prestigious religious institution, where Egypt’s most prominent cleric chided Ahmadinejad for interfering in the affairs of Sunni nations.

The protests illustrate the limits to how far and how quickly Egypt’s Islamist President Mohammed Morsi can go in reaching out to Iran: His Sunni allies at home view mainly Shiite Iran as a bitter rival, and Cairo can’t afford to alienate Washington and Gulf Arab states who seek to isolate Tehran.

The three-day visit, centered around an Islamic summit, was an attempt by Morsi to strike an independent foreign policy and reassert Egypt’s historic regional leadership role following the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, a close U.S. ally who shared Washington’s deep suspicions of Tehran. Such a visit by an Iranian leader would have been unthinkable under Mubarak.

Morsi gave Ahmadinejad a red-carpet welcome on the tarmac at Cairo airport, shaking his hand, hugging and exchanging a kiss on each check.

The two leaders then sat down for a 20-minute talk that focused on the civil war in Syria, security officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media. Iran is Damascus’s closest regional ally, while Egypt is among those that have called on Assad to step down.

Still, the chasm inherited from 34 years of bitter relations and the rift between overwhelmingly Sunni Egypt and Iran’s Shiite leadership were on display.

Sunni-Shiite tensions dominated talks between Ahmadinejad and Egypt’s most prominent cleric, Sheik Ahmed el-Tayeb, who upbraided the Iranian leader on a string of issues and warned against Iranian interference in Gulf nations, particularly Bahrain, where the ruling Sunni minority has faced protests by the Shiite majority.

El-Tayeb said attempts to spread Shiite Islam in mainly Sunni Arab nations were unacceptable and called for a halt to bloodshed in Syria, where Tehran’s ally Assad has been battling rebels, according to a statement by Al-Azhar about the meeting.

The Sunni cleric also demanded that Ahmadinejad speak out against insults hurled at the first caliphs who succeeded the Prophet Muhammad and other figures close to the prophet in the 7th century. Those figures are widely resented among
Shiites because they are seen as having pushed aside
Ali, the prophet’s son-in-law, who Shiites consider his
rightful successor. The dispute over succession is at the root
of the centuries-old split between Islam’s Shiite and Sunni sects.

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