smuggling tunnel AP
A Palestinian in a smuggling tunnel in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on the border with Egypt. Photo by AP
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Egypt's spy chief told U.S. officials last year Iran was trying to recruit Bedouin in the Sinai Peninsula to help smuggle arms into the blockaded Gaza Strip, a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable said.

U.S. ally Egypt was frightened by the spread of Iranian influence in the Middle East and the possibility Iran could obtain nuclear weapons, the April 2009 cable released by WikiLeaks said.

In April, Egypt convicted 26 men it said were linked to Lebanon's Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran, accusing them of planning attacks in Egypt.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah called the verdicts "political and unjust".

"[Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman] has expressed concern over Hezbollah's first attempt to stand up a cell within Egypt, and noted to us that Iran was also trying to recruit support from the Sinai Bedouins, he claimed, in order to facilitate arms smuggling to Gaza," the cable said.

The cable said Egyptian officials and their American allies differed in their perceptions of "the Iranian threat".

"While he [President Hosni Mubarak] will readily admit that the Iranian nuclear program is a strategic and existential threat to Egypt and the region, he sees that threat as relatively 'long term'," the cable said.

"What has seized his immediate attention are Iran's non-nuclear destabilizing actions such as support for Hamas, media attacks, weapons and illicit funds smuggling, all of which add up in his mind to 'Iranian influence spreading like a cancer from the GCC (Gulf Arab states) to Morocco.'"

A separate cable released earlier by WikiLeaks quoted Mubarak as telling American officials that Egypt might have to develop nuclear arms if Iran did.

"According to [Suleiman], Iran has tried several times to pay the salaries for the al-Qassam Battalions, but Egypt had succeeded in preventing the money from reaching Gaza," it added.

The cable added that Suleiman noted Iranian financial support to Hamas "amounted to $25 million a month, but that Egypt was 'succeeding' in preventing financial support entering Gaza through Egypt."

The cable said Interior Minister Habib el-Adli had described Egypt's efforts to fight weapons smuggling on the Egypt-Sudan border as "difficult."

"In March, he (el-Adli) told us that Egyptian police had killed arms smugglers trying to transfer weapons from Sudan into Egypt," it added.

Iran and Egypt severed ties in 1980 after Iran's Islamic revolution and Egypt's recognition of Israel. They are still at odds over issues such as the Middle East peace process and ties with Israel and the United States.

Egypt is also at odds with Iran for continuing to praise Khaled Islamboli, who assassinated Egypt's President Anwar Sadat in 1981 following the peace deal with Israel.