CAIRO (AP) — Egypt’s president gave his first major foreign policy speech on Wednesday, telling the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down before it is too late, warning Iran against interfering in Arab affairs and voicing support for Palestinian efforts to gain full membership status at the United Nations.

Addressing an Arab foreign ministers’ meeting in Cairo, Mohammed Morsi outlined the foreign policy objectives of his administration, more than two months after he took office as the nation’s first freely elected and civilian president.

His comments appeared to signal his bid to move Egypt assertively as a leader in the Middle East after what many Egyptians say was a more diminished role under his predecessor Hosni Mubarak that allowed non-Arab powers like Turkey and Iran to wield influence over the region.

Mubarak was overthrown in early 2011 in a popular uprising. After 17 months of military rule, Morsi defeated Mubarak’s last prime minister in a presidential election and took office in June.

Morsi, an Islamist who hails from the country’s largest political group, the Muslim Brotherhood, has chosen foreign policy as the forum to make his mark as the new leader of the most populous Arab nation and, in theory, the region’s traditional powerhouse. He started off in Tehran, Iran, last month with a surprisingly hard-hitting speech during a summit meeting of the so-called Nonaligned Movement. He voiced his support for Syrian rebels against the “oppressive” regime there.

His Tehran comments took on added significance because there were made in Iran, Assad’s closest ally and his regime’s main foreign backer.

Morsi continued in the same vein on Wednesday.

“I tell the Syrian regime that there is still a chance to halt the bloodshed,” said Morsi. “Don’t listen to the voices that tempt you to stay because you will not be there for much longer. There is no room for further delaying a decision that will stop the bloodshed.”

“It’s too late to talk about reform, this is the time for change. The Syrian regime must learn from recent history,” he said. He was alluding to the fate of authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen that have been overthrown by Arab Spring uprisings.

The Syrian conflict began nearly 18 months ago with mostly peaceful protests demanding the ouster of Assad, who succeeded his father, Hafez Assad, in 2000. The uprising later morphed into a civil war as the opposition took up arms in response to the regime’s use of violence to quell the protests.

At least 20,000 people have been killed since the uprising began in March 2011, according to anti-regime activists.

“Everyone must realize that the Syrian people have made their decision and that decision must be implemented through change,” said Morsi.

Without mentioning Iran by name, Morsi said there can never be any cooperation between the Arab world and neighboring nations except on the basis of “a clear and candid declaration of respect for the sovereignty of Arab nations and non-interference in their affairs.”

In lambasting Iran, Morsi has placed Egypt firmly in the camp of Gulf Arab nations led by Saudi Arabia, which see Shiite and Persian Iran to be meddling in their affairs and a threat to their security. The United Arab Emirates, for example, accuses Iran of illegally occupying three islands it claims as its own. Bahrain says Iran is encouraging the Shiite majority in the tiny island nation to rise up against the ruling Sunni minority family for more rights.

On the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Morsi said Israel was “systematically” not showing seriousness toward efforts to reach a settlement.

“We need to provide our Palestinian brothers with the necessary support to reach a just settlement,” he said. Morsi also labeled as a “fair demand” the Palestinian diplomatic drive to win full membership status at the United Nations.

Israel, which Morsi did not mention by name, is opposed to those Palestinian efforts, arguing that such a move would hinder negotiations to reach a settlement.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.