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Cairo-Tehran ties still not thawed


June 8, CAIRO, Egypt (AP) - Only a handful of the hundreds of tourists who flock daily to the 19th century Al-Rifa'i mosque in the Medieval part of Cairo bother to step inside the remote room housing the tomb of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

The scarcely visited white marble tomb, the final resting place of the deposed shah of Iran , also is a monument to two decades of the poisoned relations between Egypt and Iran .

On Wednesday, the two Middle East powerhouses set their differences aside and spoke in a language that most of their combined 170 million peoples understand well: soccer.

In their first encounter, their national sides met in Tehran in a match which left millions in both nations glued to their television sets. Egypt won after a thrilling 9-8 penalty shootout.

If they could overcome their differences, Egypt would gain crucial support to counter Israeli power in the region. For its part, Shiite Muslim Iran could broaden its appeal as a Muslim power.

"Shiites are only 10 percent of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims. So, for Iran to have legitimacy as a Muslim power it must have good relations with Sunni powers Egypt and Saudi Arabia," said Egyptian Islamic writer and Iran expert Fahmi Howeidi.

But few entertain hopes that sports, or the Iranian -Egyptian friendship society recently set up in Tehran or last November's visit to Egypt by 300 Iranian businessmen, can end years of animosity and distrust.

Egypt's late President Anwar Sadat granted asylum to the shah following his ouster in the 1979 Islamic revolution despite protests from Tehran's new clerical rulers. When the shah later died, Sadat allowed his family to bury him in Cairo.

Iran opposes the 1979 peace with Israel Sadat signed. Egypt objects to Iran 's naming a street in Tehran after Khaled al-Islambouli, the Muslim militant army officer who assassinated Sadat in 1981.

Tension was fed by Egypt's support for Iraq in its 1980-88 war against Iran and Cairo's suspicions that Tehran supported Muslim militant groups that battled its government in the 1990s.

"The problem is that, in some peculiar way, the legacy of the past 20 years is still with us," said Shireen Hunter of the Washington-based Center for Strategic Studies.

Experts believe that today, Egypt's close ties with the United Arab Emirates, locked in a long-running dispute with non-Arab Iran over three small Gulf islands, are partly to blame for the slow pace of improvement in relations.

Iran tirelessly calls for closer defense ties with its Gulf Arab neighbors and Egypt strives to secure a larger share of investment from the energy-rich region.

Egypt also is closely tied to the United States, which, despite a slight improvement in its own relations with Tehran, views the Islamic republic as a regional menace sponsoring terrorism and seeking to acquire mass-destruction weapons.

"I think that Washington would like to be able to control this ( Iranian -Egyptian) process as much as possible," said Graham Fuller, a Middle East expert from the Rand Corporation in Washington.

The overwhelming majority of Egyptians are Sunni Muslims. This, however, never stopped fundamentalist Muslims in Egypt and elsewhere from looking at the Shiite Iranian Islamic experience as an example to be followed.

"Iran made a decision to stop exporting revolution at the end of its war with Iraq," said Edmund Herzig, an Iran expert at England's University of Manchester. "But this doesn't mean that they've completely abandoned the idea or indeed stopped supporting Islamist causes around the world."


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