CAIRO (AP) — Iran’s first attempt in decades to send warships through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean on Europe’s — and NATO’s — southern flank could further destabilize the Middle East, a region already reeling from an unprecedented wave of anti-government rebellions.
Egypt’s new military rulers, who took power from ousted Hosni Mubarak a little more than a week ago, have granted two Iranian warships passage through the strategic waterway — something Israel has made clear it views as a provocation. Still, Egypt appeared to have no other choice because an international convention regulating shipping says the canal must be open “to every vessel of commerce or of war.”
Iranian warships have not passed through the Suez Canal since 1979.
The vessels bound for Syria are not expected to enter the canal before Tuesday or Wednesday, according to maritime sources in Egypt. On Sunday, the frigate Alvand and the supply ship Kharq were still near the southern entrance to the canal.
The canal linking the Red Sea and the Mediterranean enables ships to avoid a lengthy sail around Africa. The Iranian ships are headed for a training mission in Syria, a close ally of Iran’s hardline Islamic rulers and an arch foe of Israel. In Syria, officials at the Iranian embassy said it would mark the first time in years that Iranian warships dock in a Syrian port.
Iran is suspected by the U.S. and Israel of gearing its nuclear program to develop weapons, something Tehran denies. Israel considers Iran an existential threat and is watching the warships’ movements with growing alarm. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Iran on Sunday of trying to exploit recent instability in Egypt and told his Cabinet he views Iran’s moves “with gravity.”