CAIRO (AFP) — Despite Egypt-Iran tensions, the Shiite-dominated Islamic republic has made an unprecedented request for Cairo's Al-Azhar University, Sunni Islam's highest seat of learning, to open a branch in Tehran.
The overture has, however, sparked speculation in Egypt that Iran, increasingly embattled over its controversial nuclear programme, is merely seeking Arab support in its standoff with the West.
"We have asked officially, but so far we have had no response," said Karim Azizi, spokesman at the Iranian interests section in Cairo where there has been no Iranian embassy since diplomatic relations were cut almost 30 years ago.
Azizi told AFP the request to Al-Azhar -- founded in 975 AD -- was aimed at "reinforcing Iranian-Egyptian relations and bringing closer together the different Islamic confessions, especially Sunnis and Shiites."
The surprise move comes amid anger in Sunni-majority Egypt after Iranian television screened a film reportedly calling assassinated Egyptian president Anwar Sadat a traitor and hailing his executed killer as a martyr.
After "Assassination of a Pharaoh" was shown, Egypt in July cancelled a football match, summoned Iran's envoy in Cairo and closed an Iranian satellite TV channel's office.
Officially Iran has sought to distance itself from the broadcast, saying it does not represent Tehran's position and instead hailing relations between the two Middle East heavyweights as "based on friendship and brotherhood."
In a region increasingly riven with Sunni-Shiite tensions and amid fears of a so-called Shiite crescent running from Beirut to Tehran, Egypt's soured relations with Iran have little to do with sectarianism, however.
Diplomatic ties were severed in 1980 a year after Iran's Islamic revolution in protest at Egypt recognising Israel, hosting the deposed shah and supporting Baghdad during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war.
Relations warmed recently, with both states signalling a willingness to restore ties. In January, President Hosni Mubarak met Iran's parliament speaker Gholam Ali Hada Adel, the first such high-level talks in almost three decades.
Sheikh Ali Abdel Baqi, the head of Al-Azhar's Islamic Research Centre, said the Iranian request for a university or faculty was unofficial and came from Iran's five-million-strong Sunni minority, most of whom are members of ethnic minority groups living in the country's borderlands.
He said Iranian Sunnis want to "teach their children the Sunnism that's taught at Al-Azhar because it is moderate and open, and this is Al-Azhar's message all over the world."
In the wake of the Sadat film, the Egyptian press has increasingly reported what it calls a covert Shiite invasion.
"We won't allow the existence of a Shiite tide in Egyptian mosques," Minister of Waqf (religious endowments) Mahmud Hamdi Zaqzuq told the independent Al-Masri al-Youm last month.
Former Al-Azhar professor Adbel Moneim al-Berri said that Egyptian Shiite experts, including himself, have been asked to educate state security officers about "Shiite ideology and plans to break through the Sunni countries."
But Abdel Baqi insists: "We are not afraid of Shiites... There is no tension between Al-Azhar and other sects."
While Iran's Azizi suggested that an Al-Azhar presence in Iran could lead to an exchange of religious teachers, Abdel Baqi says Egypt would be unlikely to reciprocate.
"We don't need to open Shiite institutions in Egypt because all Egyptians are Sunnis," he said, adding that no Shiites study at Al-Azhar and there are "between 50,000 and 60,000 Shiites in Egypt, Iraqis who have come to seek a life in security."
However, Hossam Bahgat of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights says that many Shiites in Egypt are converts from Sunni Islam whom the state tries to coerce into converting back, using arrest, interrogation and torture.
Security forces "have even summoned scholars from Al-Azhar to meet defendants to talk them out of their conversion," Bahgat charged.
"It is not in the interest of Muslims in Egypt that the Shiite sect spreads among them because I think it is somewhat harsh and differs from the virtues and manners that we believe in," said Abdel Baqi, who has never been to Iran and has no wish to go.
Mohammed Sayed Said, editor of the independent Al-Badil newspaper, described the Iranian initiative as "a very smart move. Iran keeps reaching out to Egypt and Mubarak's Egypt is not responsive and has not been for the past 10 years.
"It's political. It's not even diplomatic because I don't think it will be approved by the state," he said.
"The general feeling at the moment is that we (Muslims) are the target of destruction, so we should do whatever is necessary to restore unity."
Middle East commentator Reza Zia-Ebrahimi called the request "very odd."
"Not only do Iranian theologians boast about (the Iranian religious city of) Qom's greater open-mindedness, but Al-Azhar and Qom are attended by two very different breeds of Muslim theologian," he told AFP.
Abdel Baqi refuses to be drawn on whether the Iranian request is a genuine religious outreach or ultimately aimed at improving its image among Arab leaders, many of whom -- Mubarak included -- are staunch US allies.
"If there is a political background to this request we are not aware of it," Abdel Baqi said. "We do not read what is in the heart -- we listen to what the tongue says."