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Egyptian Leader Stirs Tensions On First Visit To Iran


Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi caused a diplomatic stir today in Tehran, opening a summit of the Non-Aligned Movement. Morsi denounced the Syrian regime, calling it oppressive and illegitimate. That prompted an angry walk-out by the Syrian delegation. And Morsi's comments cannot have pleased the summit's hosts either. NPR's Leila Fadel reports.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: President Mohammed Morsi may have been in the capital of Syria's biggest regional backer, Iran, but that didn't stop him for condemning the government of Bashar al-Assad and urging members of the Non-Aligned Movement to unite behind Syria's opposition.

PRESIDENT MOHAMMED MORSI: (Through Translator) Ladies and gentlemen, our solidarity with the fight of the sons of the beloved Syria against the oppressive regime that has lost its legitimacy is a moral duty, as well as a political and strategic necessity.

FADEL: He didn't stop at dubbing Assad's leadership illegitimate. He then called for a roadmap to a democratic transfer of power and vowed to work to halt the violence in Syria.

MORSI: (Through Translator) Our support will translate into a clear political vision, one that supports the peaceful transition to a democratic rule, that reflects the desires of the Syrian people in freedom, justice and equality. And at the same time, protects Syria from going into civil war and sectarian conflict.

FADEL: The comments were made as Morsi, the current chairman of the Non-Aligned Movement, passed the baton to its new chairman, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. The group is a relic of the Cold War era that Iran hopes to use to counter its Western critics. Morsi's visit to Tehran was the first by an Egyptian leader in more than three decades and it was seen by some analysts as a significant shift from the anti-Iranian policies of the Hosni Mubarak regime. In his speech Morsi referred to the Islamic republic as a sisterly nation.

But he spent only a few hours in Iran and held no bilateral talks with the government leaders. He arrived in Tehran after a three-day visit to China, where he also discussed the Syrian conflict as well as Egypt's foundering economy.

MORSI: (Through Translator) The Syrian crisis is one that is causing our hearts to bleed.

FADEL: In further comments at the summit, Morsi linked the Syrian revolt to last year's uprising in Egypt that led to the ouster of Mubarak, and swept Morsi himself to power as the first freely-elected president of Egypt. Complicating Morsi's relationship with Iran is his background as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. The organization has repeatedly condemned Iran for backing the Syrian government in its bloody crackdowns on the opposition.

Pushing himself to the forefront of regional events, Morsi is advocating the creation of a regional contact group that would include Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey to work to end the Syrian crisis. A proposal some analysts say is a better option than isolating Syria's backers like Iran. They say without the involvement of Syria's allies, no peace plan can succeed. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.