DUBAI/CAIRO (Reuters) - An Iranian news agency said Egypt’s Islamist President-elect Mohamed Mursi had voiced interest in restoring long-severed ties with Tehran to create a strategic “balance” in the region, but a Mursi aide denied the interview ever took place.
Iran’s Fars agency said it spoke to Mursi a few hours before Sunday’s election results were announced and quoted him saying the two countries should get closer - comments that go counter to Western efforts to isolate Tehran over its nuclear program.
“We must restore normal relations with Iran based on shared interests, and expand areas of political coordination and economic cooperation because this will create a balance of pressure in the region,” the semi-official news agency quoted Mursi as saying in a transcript of the interview.
Yasser Ali, a Mursi aide, told Reuters: “There was never a meeting with the Iranian news agency Fars and what was taken as statements has no basis in truth”.
On its web page, Fars published a transcript and an audio of the conversation. Reuters was unable to verify the recording but the man purported to be Mursi did not sound exactly like him.
Fars said it had asked Mursi whether, if elected, his first state visit would be to Riyadh, to which he replied: “I didn’t say such a thing and until now my first international visits following my victory in the elections have not been determined”.
Rivalry between Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran has been intensified by last year’s “Arab Spring” revolts, which have altered political certainties in the Middle East and left the powerful Gulf neighbors vying for influence.
Since Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was toppled in one of those uprisings, both Cairo and Tehran have signaled interest in renewing ties severed more than 30 years ago.
Mursi, however, striving to reassure Egypt’s western allies wary at the prospect of Islamist rule, is unlikely to stage major foreign policy reversals so early in his rule.
In a message to Mursi on Monday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad congratulated him for winning the vote.
“I emphasize expanding bilateral ties and strengthening the friendship between the two nations,” Ahmadinejad wrote, according to state television.
Iran has hailed Mursi’s victory over former general Ahmed Shafik in Egypt’s first free presidential election as a “splendid vision of democracy” that marked the country’s “Islamic Awakening” - a phrase Iranian politicians use to describe the events of the “Arab Spring” and its aftermath.
When asked about the possibility of Cairo and Tehran restoring relations, White House spokesman Jay Carney stressed Egypt’s vital role in the region.
“It is perfectly appropriate for a nation like Egypt to have relations with its neighbors, but again we look to Egypt to continue its significant role as a pillar of regional peace and stability,” Carney said aboard Air Force One as President Barack Obama flew to New Hampshire.
Western diplomats say in reality Egypt has little real appetite to change relations with Iran significantly, given the substantial issues the new president already has to face in cementing relations with regional and global powers.
“Iran is hoping for Egypt to become a deterrent against an Israeli attack as well as a regional player that Iran can use as a potential counter-balance against Turkey and Saudi Arabia,” said a diplomat based in Tehran.
“Egypt, at least under present circumstances, would side with either of these against Iran.”
In what looked like a reversal of comments Mursi made in a televised address after his victory was announced on Sunday, Fars news quoted him as saying Egypt’s Camp David peace accord with Israel “will be reviewed”, without elaborating.
The peace treaty remains a lynchpin of U.S. Middle East policy and, despite its unpopularity with many Egyptians, was staunchly upheld by Mubarak, who suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood movement to which Mursi belongs.
The Sunni Brotherhood, whose Palestinian offshoot Hamas rules the Gaza Strip, is vehemently critical of Israel, which has watched the rise of Islamists and political upheaval in neighboring Egypt with growing concern.
Egypt’s formal recognition of Israel and Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution led in 1980 to the breakdown of diplomatic relations between the two countries, among the biggest and most influential in the Middle East. They currently have reciprocal interest sections, but not at ambassadorial level.
Egypt’s foreign minister said last year that Cairo was ready to re-establish diplomatic relations with Iran, which has hailed most Arab Spring uprisings as anti-Western rebellions inspired by its own Islamic Revolution.
But Iran has steadfastly supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Tehran’s closest Arab ally, who is grappling with a revolt against his rule, and at home has continued to reject demands for reform, which spilled onto the street following the disputed re-election of Ahmadinejad in 2009.
Additional reporting by Isabel Coles and by Susan Cornwell in Washington; Editing by Robin Pomeroy