CAIRO — Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi held meetings in Cairo Thursday with Egypt's president and foreign minister. Salehi was in the Egyptian capital to discuss the conflict in Syria and improving relations between Egypt and Iran.
The Salehi visit to Cairo comes amid rising tensions between Sunnis and Shi'ites across the Middle East. A focal point of those tensions, the conflict in Syria, was at the top of his agenda as he met with top Egyptian and Arab League officials.
Salehi told journalists, during a press conference with Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel al Amr, that Iran would like to see negotiations between the opposing sides in Syria begin quickly.
He said Iran would like to see talks between the Syrian government and the opposition start before it's too late, and that regional states sit down and talk, so as to find a solution between both sides and prevent foreign intervention.
In an interview with Egyptian TV, Salehi argued that Middle East states were “able to solve their own problems, without resorting to parties outside the region.”
Salehi, who speaks flawless Arabic, has attempted to bridge the Sunni-Shi'ite sectarian divide during visits to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt, last year.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr said that a peace proposal by Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi, calling for Iran, Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to jointly negotiate an end to the Syrian conflict, was still on the table. He added that Iran has a key role to play:
He said there must be an understanding both between Syrians and among regional powers and that it must respond to the legitimate demands of the Syrian people, as was the case in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, in order to spare the Syrian people more bloodshed. Iran, he added, has a role to play in President Morsi's four-party diplomatic initiative.
A six-point Iranian plan to end the Syrian conflict had a cool reception in most Arab capitals. Saudi Arabia, which supports the Syrian rebels, has repeatedly refused to hold joint talks with Iran about Syria.
Iran analyst Gary Sick, who teaches at Columbia University, said Iranian diplomacy is trying hard to avoid a major Sunni-Shi'ite conflict in the region, but that the success of that diplomacy is rather limited:
"What Iran wants to do is pretty clear. They would like to tamp down that sense of a sectarian divide," he said."They would like to be a contributing part of the community, and that's what they're trying to do, and they're going keep trying to do it, but their success thus far has not been very great. They're doing their best, but their best may not be enough."
Foreign Minister Salehi also met with the sheikh of Egypt's venerable al Azhar University, as well as with the country's newly-elected Coptic pope. Analyst Sick said the visits are symbolic attempts to say that Iran is not a sectarian-oriented state.
Despite Iran's attempts to portray itself as a non-sectarian partner and neighbor, however, the Arab media has repeatedly complained about what it calls “Iranian meddling” in sectarian conflicts across the region, from Syria to Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen, and Lebanon.