Cairo — With a new Iranian offensive threatening Iraq, Egypt is dropping almost all pretense of neutrality and ever more openly siding with Iraq.
Egyptian Minister of Defense Abdul Halim Abu Ghazala last week affirmed Egypt is providing Iraq directly with certain types of weapons and ammunition. The defense minister repeated a relatively new theme of the government of Hosni Mubarak: that Egypt is ''committed to play a role in the Gulf area.''
General Abu Ghazala stopped short of openly siding with Iraq in its 19 -month-old war with Iran, but Gulf security is a code term referring to the threat of the fundamentalist Shiite regime in Iran to the Arab countries of the Gulf that have large Shiite populations. Those are, primarily, Iraq, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia.
If the regimes in Iraq and other Gulf states survive the Iranian challenge - and if Egypt can take some of the credit - this is likely to speed up the reintegration of Egypt into the Arab world.
So it appeared from Cairo in the wake of two important developments last week: (1) the return to Egypt of the Sinai and (2) a major new Iranian offensive against Iraq.
The former, in the Egyptian view, vindicated the go-it-alone policy of the Egyptian government. The latter shows immediately where Egyptian aid may make a difference to the Arab world.
The Sinai and the Gulf dominate discussion in the Cairo press and are the two chief topics among Egyptian foreign policy experts. If the Arab world is not yet beating down Egypt's door in the first days after the return of the Sinai, Egyptian officials nonetheless see rapprochement as inevitable.
''We feel there are tendencies to mend fences,'' a Foreign Ministry official told the Monitor. ''It is nothing formal yet, but nevertheless the subject of upgrading (diplomatic) relations has been discussed.''
Among the states believed to be discussing the resumption of ties at the ambassadorial level are Morocco, Bahrain, Iraq, and Jordan.
''But,'' adds the Egyptian official, ''we will not take the first step.''
What may accelerate rapprochement is the need by Iraq and the moderate, Sunni-led regimes of the Gulf to stave off a resurgent, revolutionary Iran.
On April 30, Iran launched a major new drive in the Khorramshahr-Abadan region, which Iraq seized in September 1980. Reports from Tehran indicate Iranian troops crossed the Karun River and advanced on the two Iraqi-held cities. Iraq said the advance had been halted and a counteroffensive mounted.
Under Anwar Sadat, Egypt maintained an overtly neutral position in the Gulf war while the rest of the Arab world became polarized. Mr. Sadat, irked at the theocracy in Iran and at Mr. Hussein's presumption in attempting to lead the Arab world in the place of an ostracized Egypt, acidly criticized both sides. Beneath the rhetoric, however, Mr. Sadat eventually maneuvered to support Iraq with arms shipments.
But Mr. Mubarak has continued and expanded that policy. His aims:
* To enhance Gulf security. Regardless of the diplomatic distance that has existed during the past three years between Egypt and other Arab countries, extensive trade and cultural links remain. Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians work in the Gulf, and Gulf investment in Egypt has been steadily climbing during the past two years.
* To stem the fundamentalist wave. The Sadat assassination underscored to Mr. Mubarak the threat that religious zealotry poses in the Arab world. Keeping back fundamentalist Iran is much more important to Mr. Mubarak than it was to Mr. Sadat.
* To link up with Arab moderates. What Egypt is offering in terms of military support would seem to call for reciprocal recognition from Arab moderates. Thus Egypt's strategic maneuver could mean a dangerous commitment. But it also could link up the moderates and perhaps enhance prospects for a broadened Arab-Israeli peace.