Egypt gives Iran Navy access to Suez Canal for first time in 30 years

SUEZ CANAL officials say two Iranian naval vessels are expected to start their passage through the strategic waterway early today.

Canal officials say the ships are expected to pay a fee of $290,000 for the crossing. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity.

If the ships make the passage, it would mark the first time in three decades that Iranian military ships have travelled the canal that links the Red Sea to the Mediterranean.

Israel has made clear it views the passage as a provocation. Canal officials said yesterday the ships, a frigate and a supply vessel, were close to the southern entrance of the canal. The vessels are headed to Syria for a training mission.

Iran’s first attempt in decades to send ships through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean on Europe’s — and NATO’s — southern flank could further destabilise 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, granted the 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”.

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.

Iran is suspected by the US and Israel of gearing its nuclear programme 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”.

The request by the Iranians is a test of the foreign policy intentions of Egypt’s new military rulers, the gatekeepers of the canal. Mubarak, an ally of Israel and the US, who ruled for nearly 30 years, was toppled on February 11 by a popular uprising and the country is now run by a military council. Mubarak was considered a bulwark in the region against Islamic extremism.

“Iran wants to say to the world, to the US, Israel and other countries in the Mideast that it has reach not only in areas close to it but also farther away, including in the Mediterranean,” said Ephraim Kam of the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel.

He said Iran is also signalling to Israel it is prepared to protect its allies Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon on Israel’s northern and southern flanks.

A senior Iranian naval commander told an Iranian news agency already several days before the January 25 start of the revolt in Egypt that Iran planned to dispatch warships to the Mediterranean, via the Suez Canal. The commander said candidly at the time the mission was to gather intelligence and train Navy cadets to protect Iranian cargo ships and oil tankers against attacks by Somali pirates.

But Iran appears to have more far-reaching objectives, including asserting itself as a regional power and testing whether Egypt’s new rulers will stick to Mubarak’s pro-Western line, analysts said.

Iran’s influence has grown in recent years, with the political rise of its proxies Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and its close alliance with Syria.

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