CAIRO — Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi will attend a summit in Iran later this month, a presidential official said on Saturday, the first such trip for an Egyptian leader since relations with Tehran deteriorated decades ago.
The visit could mark a thaw between the two countries after years of enmity, especially since Egypt signed its 1979 peace treaty with Israel and Iran underwent its Islamic revolution. Under Morsi's predecessor Hosni Mubarak, Egypt, predominantly Sunni Muslim, sided with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-dominated Arab states in trying to isolate Shiite-led Iran.
The official said that Morsi will visit Tehran on Aug. 30 on his way back from China to attend the Non-Aligned Movement Summit, where Egypt will transfer the movement's rotating leadership to Iran. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not yet authorized to make the announcement.
The trip is no surprise — it came days after Morsi included Iran in a proposal for a contact group to mediate an end to Syria's escalating civil war. The proposal for the group, which includes Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, was made at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation summit in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca.
The idea was welcomed by Iran's state-run Press TV, and a leading member of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood said that Tehran's acceptance of the proposal was a sign Egypt was beginning to regain some of the diplomatic and strategic clout it once held in the region.
After the fall of Egypt's longtime strongman Hosni Mubarak in a popular uprising last year, officials have expressed no desire to maintain Mubarak's staunch anti-Iranian stance.
Last July, former Egyptian foreign minister Nabil Elaraby, who also heads the Arab League, delivered a conciliatory message to the Islamic Republic, saying "Iran is not an enemy," and noted that post-Mubarak Egypt would seek to open a new page with every country in the world, including Iran.
Any normalization, however, would have to be based on careful calculations.
Majority Sunni Egypt has its own suspicions of Iran on both religious and political grounds. The country's ultraconservative Salafis consider Shiites heretics and enemies, and for more than three decades under Mubarak, state-run media fed the public stories of Iranian plots to weaken the Egyptian state.
However, many Egyptians sympathize with Iran's Islamic revolution and consider Tehran's defiance of the United States a model to follow, while others seek a foreign policy at the very least more independent of Washington.
A new understanding with Iran would be a big shake-up for the region, which has been sharply split between Tehran's camp — which includes Syria and Islamic militias Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, and a U.S.-backed group led by Saudi Arabia and rich Gulf nations.
But of the two camps, so far it's clear Morsi has focused on courting Saudi Arabia. He visited it twice, once just after he won the presidency, and a second time during the Islamic summit. In an attempt to assuage fears of the Arab uprisings by oil monarchs, he vowed that Egypt does not want to "export its revolution". He has also asserted commitment to the security of Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Arab allies, a thinly veiled reference to the tension between them and Iran.