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U.S. defense secretary Gates arrives in Cairo

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates landed in Cairo today, kicking off a regional tour aimed at reassuring key allies in the region about U.S. diplomatic overtures to Iran.

Gates arrives here at a time in which fears are high over growing Iranian influence in the region. The Egyptian government last month arrested 25 men on the Sinai Peninsula, accusing them of being part of an Iranian-backed Hezbollah cell. The military continues to scour the Sinai for another 24 supposed militants it says are on the run.

Ever since Iran gained a foothold in the Arab world through the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Arab leaders have worried that the biggest Shiite nation might succeed in spreading Islamic extremism throughout the region. And Iran’s influence has grown in recent years through its partnerships with the Assad regime in Syria and the Hezbollah leadership in Lebanon.

The future of U.S.-Iranian relations seems to be in a state of limbo since the Obama administration took office. Washington and Tehran have each engaged in diplomatic posturing since the release of Obama’s video message to the people and government of Iran, giving little clarity about where the relationship is heading.

This uncertainty has led many Arab leaders to fear that a softer U.S. line towards Iran could lead to a further spread in Iranian influence.

Gates’ visit to Egypt is also a nod of confidence to the largest Arab country, which has struggled to reassert regional leadership since it sided with the U.S. and Israel during Israel’s January offensive in Gaza.

Protesters stormed several Egyptian embassies throughout the region, including in Lebanon and Yemen, to protest Egypt’s hard line in Gaza. Several regional leaders, including President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, sharply rebuked President Hosni Mubarak’s stance.

Egypt has seen its influence wane since the heady days of President Gamal Abdel Nasser. But its regional standing appears to have fallen to a low ebb since the rise of the Gulf and the formation of the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah alliance.

A moderate regime , Egypt stands to be a strong asset for Washington if it can climb back to its position of regional leadership.

It’s telling that Gates is stopping here first.