Two Iranian warships reportedly en route for Syria are set to pass through the Suez Canal. It would be the first time since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 for naval vessels of Iran’s to traverse the canal.
While Egypt’s Suez Canal Authority told Reuters early on Thursday that it had not received notification to let the warships pass, Iranian state television claimed that Cairo had been informed to secure their passage. Egyptian authorities later confirmed that.
According to one canal official, who spoke with the AFP news agency anonymously, the Iranian ships were near Jeddah on Thursday afternoon, a Saudi port on the Red Sea about 1,000 kilometers south of Suez.
Among the ships was the light patrol frigate Alvand which has a crew of 135 and is armed with torpedos and anti-ship missiles. Four Alvand class frigates were commissioned in the 1970s. One, the Sahand, was sunk by US forces during the Iran-Iraq War after it unsuccessfully attempted to shoot down an American warplane.
The other vessel was reported to be the replenishment ship Kharg which entered service in 1984 and was most recently refitted in 1993. The Kharg has a crew of some 250 and can carry up to three helicopters.
Both the Alvand and the Kharg were built in the United Kingdom and are usually part of a flotilla that is assigned to protect Iran’s merchant marine in the Gulf of Aden.
Israel is monitoring the ships and has warned that it might act if they crossed to the Mediterranean Sea. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has said that “Israel cannot ignore these provocations.”
The incident comes mere days after Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who for thirty years honored his country’s peace agreement with Israel, was forced to resign amid mass civil unrest. The military leadership in Egypt has taken control of the government for a period of transition to democracy.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Fox News that the events are unlikely to be intertwined as Iran had had to plan this “provocation” weeks in advance. The move does underscore Iran’s military assertiveness in the region at a time when Israel feels increasingly isolated.
Since the Constantinople Convention of 1888, Egypt has committed to allow ships of all nations to cross the canal. After 1948 it blocked access to Israeli ships however until the 1976 Camp David Accords were signed. Egypt’s generals have pledged to uphold their existing international commitments.