Iranian Shi'ite president to meet Egypt's top Sunni cleric

CAIRO Mon Feb 4, 2013 11:18am EST

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CAIRO (Reuters) - The president of the Shi'ite Islamic Republic of Iran will court Egypt's top Sunni Muslim cleric at al-Azhar university on Tuesday in a historic trip pointing to Tehran's efforts to improve ties with an Arab state now run by an Islamist.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be the first Iranian head of state to visit Egypt since the 1979 Iranian revolution, which led to a rupture in diplomatic relations between two of the most influential states in the Middle East. He is due to attend a two-day Islamic summit in Cairo that begins on Wednesday.

Analysts do not now expect a full restoration of ties, given Egyptian hostility to Iranian support for embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Cairo's desire not to damage relations with Israel and the United States.

Ahmadinejad's trip follows a visit to Tehran last year by Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood movement that was outlawed during the rule of Hosni Mubarak, who was long one of Washington's closest regional allies.

Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, head of the 1,000-year-old al-Azhar mosque and university, will meet Ahmadinejad at the campus in mediaeval Islamic Cairo, al-Azhar's media office said.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi stressed the importance of Muslim unity when he met Sheikh al-Tayeb at al-Azhar last month.

Egypt and Iran have taken opposite courses since the late 1970s. Egypt, under Mubarak's predecessor Anwar Sadat, concluded a peace treaty with Israel in 1979 and became a close ally of the United States and Europe. Iran from 1979 turned into a center of opposition to Western influence in the Middle East.

Symbolically, Iran named a street in Tehran after the Islamist who led the 1981 assassination of Sadat.

Although Egypt's leadership has changed and ties with Tehran have become more open, analysts say Cairo is also seeking to deepen relations with Gulf states that are suspicious of Iran, including Qatar, which has provided vital financial assistance.

(Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Paul Taylor/Mark Heinrich)

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