CAIRO, Feb. 5 (UPI) -- Egypt's leader rolled out the red carpet -- literally -- for a visit from former foe, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during a multination summit.
The visit is a significant one considering the history between the two nations. Deposed President Hosni Mubarak was hostile to Iran and portrayed himself as a counterweight to Iran's influence in the Muslim world.
But since the Arab Spring uprising that dislodged Mubarak from power and elevated Islamist Mohamad Morsi to the presidency, relations between the two longtime enemies have begun to thaw, The New York Times said Tuesday. The two leaders embraced warmly on the tarmac at the airport in Cairo, a scene unthinkable under Mubarak's rule.
"Egypt is a very important country in the region and the Islamic Republic of Iran believes it is one of the heavyweights in the Middle East," Iran's foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, told the state Islamic Republic News Agency in Munich Tuesday. "We are ready to further strengthen ties."
Ahmadinejad further raised eyebrows on the trip when he said he hoped to visit Gaza while he is in Egypt and someday to pray in Jerusalem "after it is liberated."
Ahmadinejad, who was to arrive in Cairo Tuesday ahead of a two-day Islamic summit beginning Wednesday, was asked by pan-Arab Lebanese news channel al-Mayadeen if he would visit Gaza during his trip or perhaps before his presidential term ends in June.
"My wish is bigger than this," he responded. "I wish to pray in Jerusalem after it is liberated."
Iran does not recognize Israel and refers to the government in Jerusalem as the "Zionist regime." Tehran calls Israeli land "occupied territory."
Regarding Gaza, Ahmadinejad said the Palestinian city in the Gaza Strip "is one stop before Jerusalem."
"If they allow it, I will go to Gaza to visit the people," he told the satellite channel, which Western media sometimes call a propaganda platform for Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah Shiite Islamic militant group and political party. The channel denies the allegation, saying it is funded by unidentified Arab businessmen.
Ahmadinejad's visit to Cairo is the first for an Iranian president since the 1979 Iranian revolution, which created an Islamic republic.
Before leaving Tehran, Ahmadinejad told Fars News Agency he hoped the trip would lead to future cooperation between the countries.
"We will try to prepare the grounds for the expansion of cooperation," he said.
Egypt is the only Arab country not to have an embassy in Iran, The Jerusalem Post said. Egypt is also the Middle East's most populous country.
Ahmadinejad was to meet Tuesday with top Egyptian Sunni Muslim cleric Ahmed Muhammad Ahmed el-Tayeb, who supervises al-Azhar Mosque and al-Azhar University.
Ahmadinejad is to head Iran's delegation to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation summit Wednesday and Thursday.
The 57-country organization seeks to be the collective voice of the Muslim world.