Hamid Baghaei, an Iranian vice president and the head of culture and tourism, said the agreement was "one of the most valuable economic agreements that have been signed between Iran and Egypt over the past 30 years," according to Iranian state TV. He suggested it could be a first step toward issuing visas to Egyptian and Iranian citizens and otherwise furthering ties between the two usually hostile states.
The agreement between Egypt's civil aviation authority and Iran's national aviation company, signed Oct. 3, provides for up to 28 private flights a week but does not specify a start date or a reason for their resumption. The deal has baffled observers long accustomed to watching the two regional adversaries spar.
Ties between the two countries fell apart in the wake of the Iranian revolution and Egypt's peace accord with Israel in 1979. Neither has an embassy in the other's capital, operating instead through interest sections.
As Iran sags under the weight of a new round of international sanctions and increasing isolation, Tehran has a clear interest in opening a window to Egypt. But Cairo's motivation has mystified analysts, who do not see a commercial demand for so many flights.
"At a time when the world is cutting off its ties to Iran, it seems strange that Egypt, a close ally of the United States, is broadening its ties to Iran," said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"If anything, Egypt has been in the forefront of the Arab states critical of Iran. Especially for a state that is relatively far from Iran, it's had a quite loud voice about the threat that Iran poses to the region," he added. Egypt's foreign ministry could not be reached for comment, but has publicly downplayed the deal's significance.
Predominantly Sunni Egypt and majority Shiite Iran are in opposite camps in the region. Iran maintains strong ties to Syria and to militant groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, while Egypt works closely with pro-Western regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
Egypt often accuses Iran of stirring up instability, especially through its support for Hamas in bordering Gaza, while Tehran often rails about Egypt's ties to the U.S. and its peaceful stance toward Israel. Both try to shore up regional influence, often at the expense of the other.
Egypt has long been particularly rankled by Iran's persistent praise for Khaled Islamboli, who assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981 following the Camp David Accords. A 2008 Iranian documentary film titled "Execution of a Pharaoh" called Islamaboli "a martyr" and portrayed Sadat as a "traitor," drawing harsh outcry from Egyptian officials. For its part, Egypt annually honors Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, Iran's deposed monarch, who was granted sanctuary in Cairo after the revolution. The Shah is buried in Cairo's Al Rifa'i mosque.
During Israel's 2009 incursion into Gaza, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad repeatedly condemned the Egyptian government. "Unfortunately, some regional, Islamic and Arab states, for whatever reason and with a smile of satisfaction, are supporting or tolerating this rare genocide in silence," Ahmadinejad wrote to Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah in a letter that was made public.
In that bellicose context, restoring flights between the two feuding capitals carries symbolic significance at the very least. "It's not exactly like they've normalized relations, but the direct flights after 31 years, it's a pretty big deal," said Steven Cook, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Cook said the agreement might be an indication that the Egyptian government is distancing itself from the U.S. as Egypt approaches a potential transition of power. Octogenarian president Hosni Mubarak, who has governed Egypt for almost three decades, has yet to announce whether he will seek another term in elections scheduled for September 2011. The country is gripped by uncertainty over who will succeed him, even as some within the ruling party promote Mubarak's son, Gamal.
"There may be some pressure being felt as everybody gets ready for this move from one Mubarak to another or Mubarak to whomever -- that there's going to have to be some daylight between the United States and Egypt," said Cook.
Others suggest there may be an unseen element to Cairo's decision. Iran signs many more agreements than it implements, Alterman said, and Egypt may be "getting something we don't know about. If it's in exchange for something involving Hamas or something involving intelligence or something else, all the Egyptians had to do is announce a deal which isn't going to be implemented."