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Now Playing: Egypt and Iran

It seems as though Iran is making new inroads with key Arab states almost every few days. Three weeks ago, I wrote that Iraqi National Security Adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie had called for a regional security pact that would include Iran, while I noted on Monday that Libya—which is slowly achieving normalization with western states—had signed ten agreements with Iran and supported the Iranian nuclear position. But Iran’s ever-expanding role in the Middle East got a major boost yesterday, when Ali Larijani, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s representative to Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, was welcomed in Egypt. Fully normalized Egyptian-Iranian relations—nonexistent since Cairo signed peace with Israel in 1979—appear imminent.

To some extent, revamped Iranian-Egyptian relations have been expected for some time. In 2004, Iran renamed a street in Tehran that it had previously dedicated to Anwar Sadat assassin Khaled Islambouli—a glorified “martyr” in Iran—thus dropping a critical sticking point between the two states. But yesterday’s meeting went well beyond typical diplomatic pleasantries: Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit announced his support for Iran’s nuclear activities and called for continued Egyptian-Iranian dialogue on regional issues, including Iraq and Lebanon.

For Egypt, these statements represent a stunning change of tune. In recent years, Egypt has been a key Arab opponent of regional Iranian ascendancy, lambasting Iranian-backed Hizballah for its actions during the 2006 Lebanon war, and supporting the Annapolis conference as an antidote to Iranian hegemony. Yet within Iran’s sphere of influence, Abul-Gheit’s comments were true crowd-pleasers, with Hizballah leader Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah gleefully declaring that improved Iranian-Egyptian relations “would help protect Muslim countries against major threats,” including those emanating from “the U.S. and the Zionist regime.” Meanwhile, Iran offered to help Egypt develop nuclear technology, crossing a major red line as far as U.S.-Egyptian relations are concerned.

The key footnote to this sudden Iranian-Egyptian engagement is the recent souring of Israeli-Egyptian relations. Last month, Israel showed U.S. officials a tape of Egyptian police officers aiding weapons smugglers crossing into Gaza, and Congress immediately threatened to withhold Egyptian military aid. Abul-Gheit first blamed the pro-Israel lobby for the impasse, then threatened “diplomatic retaliation” if Israel pursued Egypt’s alleged role in weapons smuggling further.

Of course, with President Bush set to touch down in Israel and the Palestinian territories next week, mending Israeli-Egyptian relations is the last thing with which the administration hoped to be dealing. Yet much of what Bush hopes to accomplish in the Middle East before leaving office—particularly Israeli-Palestinian peace and Iranian isolation—depends on keeping this relationship stable. The good news is that Bush will also visit Cairo. Asking the Mubarak regime to explain its recent tryst with Iran should top that agenda.