Iran woos Egypt with loan offer, visa waiver

Are Egypt and Iran falling for each other?

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in the middle of his historic visit to Cairo, has called for a strategic alliance between the two most populous nations in the Middle East.

To sweeten the deal, he's offering what Reuters calls a "big loan," as well as a visa waiver for Egyptian tourists and businesspeople looking to visit Iran.

An Iranian-Egyptian axis is "in the interests of the Egyptian and Iranian peoples and other nations of the region," Reuters quoted Ahmadinejad as telling Egyptian media.

Specifically, Egypt stands to benefit from the "big credit line" that Ahmadinejad has offered to open to it. Iran, meanwhile, would gain a useful ally against what it sees as Western interference in the Middle East.

GlobalPost Senior Correspondent in Cairo Erin Cunningham said the offer surprised many observers, who have tracked the decline of Iran's own economy under searing international sanctions aimed at thwarting Iran's nuclear program.

"There is speculation Ahmadinejad knew he would be rebuffed — though there is no official response so far from the Egyptian government," Cunningham said. "Some analysts say Iran’s push to warm ties with Egypt, which have been severed since Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1979, reflects the potential loss of Iran’s most stalwart Arab ally, Syria."

On the other side, Cunningham said Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has only vaguely courted Iran, visiting Tehran for the Non-Aligned Movement summit in September and inviting Ahmadinejad to the meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Cairo.

"Morsi may want to show he has leverage with Iran vis-à-vis Syria, where he has announced efforts to spearhead a regional solution to the nearly two-year-long civil war," she said.

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Closer ties between the two Islamist-governed countries "can prevent further expansion of the Western domination over the region," the deputy chairman of the Iranian parliament's foreign policy committee, Ahmadreza Dastgheib, told Tehran's Press TV this week.

Egypt's foreign minister told Reuters that Ahmadinejad's much-hyped trip to attend the Organization of Islamic Cooperation summit was "just a normal procedure, that's all."

Meanwhile the most prominent Muslim cleric in Egypt, imam Ahmed al-Tayyeb of Cairo's al-Azhar mosque, publicly criticized Iran for interfering in the affairs of its Sunni neighbors, notably Bahrain. (Iran follows Shi'ite Islam, while Egypt is predominantly Sunni.)

And given Morsi's domestic troubles — a struggling economy, opposition from secularists and liberals — the last thing he wants is to alienate Egyptians or wealthy foreign allies by palling up with Ahmadinejad, Bessma Momani of the Center for for International Governance Innovation writes in the Toronto Star. Iran and Egypt's strategic interests, she says, "are still worlds apart."