Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, left, is surrounded by Iranian officials… (Khamenei.ir )
TEHRAN — Egypt's new president rankled his hosts but won plaudits elsewhere Thursday when he condemned the Iran-backed government of Syrian President Bashar Assad as an "oppressive regime," sparking a walkout by Assad government officials at a summit of nonaligned nations.
"We express our solidarity with the struggle of the Syrian people against an oppressive regime that has lost legitimacy," Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi told the assembled delegates at a conference hall in the Iranian capital. "It is not only an ethical duty but a political and strategic necessity."
Morsi's impassioned plea represented a diplomatic humiliation for Tehran, which had touted his presence as a diplomatic coup, the first visit by an Egyptian leader here since the Islamic Revolution overthrew the U.S.-backed Iranian shah in 1979.
But instead of toeing Tehran's line on the delicate issue of Syria or sidestepping the incendiary topic, Morsi acted like the guest who spoiled the party, making an emotional case for the ouster of Assad, Iran's closest Arab ally.
"The blood of the Syrian people is on our necks, and it will not stop unless there is an intervention by all of us," Morsi said while calling for a transition to a representative government in Syria, where the Assad family has ruled for more than 40 years.
Morsi left no doubt that he views the 17-month-old Syrian rebellion as a popular uprising against a repressive dictatorship.
The infuriated Syrian delegation, led by Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, walked out of the conference hall in protest. Moallem later labeled Morsi's remarks "an interference in Syria's internal affairs" and an "instigation for continuing the shedding of … Syrian blood," according to Syria's official news service.
There was no immediate official reaction from Iran, where President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warmly embraced Morsi upon his arrival in Tehran.
The Syrian government is a key member of the Iran-proclaimed "axis of resistance" against the United States and Israel.
Morsi's comments were a direct contradiction of Tehran's oft-stated view that Assad's rule is being undercut by "terrorists" backed by the United States and other foreign powers hostile to Iran.
The rebellion of Syria's largely Sunni Muslim population against Assad's minority Alawite-led regime has drawn broad sympathy in the Arab world, where Sunnis predominate.
Morsi compared the plight of Syrians to that of Palestinians, whose cause is regarded as near sacrosanct in official circles in Tehran and Damascus, the Syrian capital. Both Syrians and Palestinians are "actively seeking freedom, dignity and human justice," Morsi said.
Official Iranian media, which have given blanket coverage to the gathering, appeared to ignore Morsi's remarks. They also seemed to omit comments by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon assailing Tehran's human rights record and implicitly criticizing its hostility to Israel.
Iran has viewed the Nonaligned Movement summit of more than 100 nations as validation of its perceived role as a world power, a counter-narrative to U.S. assertions that the Islamic Republic is an isolated rogue state and sponsor of terrorism.
Morsi's overtures to Iran had caused some jitters in Washington and the Arab world, where Saudi Arabia views Iran as its chief regional rival.
At home, Morsi's comments won considerable praise, with some viewing a prospective return of the "soft power" once wielded by the world's most populous Arab nation, clout lost during the stultifying rule of ousted President Hosni Mubarak.
"Morsi made this significant visit today, but he took this step with extreme caution and coyness because the road to Tehran can close other doors for Egypt, especially with the [Persian] Gulf countries," said Nabil Abdel Fattah, an Egyptian political analyst.
In his speech, Morsi made no mention of the human rights situation in Bahrain, where Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-dominated gulf nations have supported the Sunni monarchy in its crackdown on protests by the Shiite minority. Shiite Iran has positioned itself as a champion of Bahrain's Shiites.
Morsi was the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Islamist group's Syrian wing has been banned for decades but is now funneling aid to the opposition, reportedly in cooperation with Sunni gulf monarchies, and positioning itself to play a significant role should Assad be overthrown.
Special correspondents Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Abdellatif from Cairo. Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut contributed to this report.