TEL AVIV // Egypt allowed two Iranian naval ships to sail through the Suez Canal yesterday for the first time in decades, in a move that angered Israel and reflected a possible Iranian bid to expand its influence in the Middle East.
The two ships entered the stretch in the early morning on a journey that typically lasts about 12 to 14 hours along the waterway that links the Red Sea to the Mediterranean.
While the passage of the ships was expected to take place without incident, analysts said Egypt's handling of Iran's request was a diplomatic test for the country's new ruling military council since taking power on February 11 in the aftermath of the revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak from the presidency.
By permitting the vessels to enter the canal, the council appeared to risk relations with both Israel, with whom Egypt has a cold but stable peace agreement, and the US, which grants Egypt $2 billion (Dh7.3bn) in annual aid and has also expressed concerns about the move.
The ships' passage appeared to signal a new round of tensions between Israel and Iran. Silvan Shalom, vice prime minister and member of the ruling Likud party, said during a conference in the southern Israeli resort city of Eilat: "The transit of the Iranian boats is part of Iran's full-out struggle for hegemony and control of the Middle East."
His comments followed those of the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who has long viewed Iran as Israel's archenemy and has tried to lobby western countries to act aggressively against Iran's nuclear ambitions. On Sunday, he said in public remarks to his cabinet that Israel is taking a "grave" view of the Iranian step. He also warned that "Iran is trying to take advantage of the situation that has arisen and broaden its influence by transferring two warships via the Suez Canal".
According to the Israeli premier, Israel's security needs and budgets are likely to grow in coming months amid the unrest that is spreading across the Middle East and that is raising worries in Israel about the possible rise of Islamist governments in neighbouring countries such as Egypt, with which it signed a peace pact in 1979.
Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's far-right foreign minister, last week was the first Israeli official to draw attention to the possible journey of the ships through the waterway by cautioning that "the international community must understand that Israel cannot ignore these provocations forever".
The Iranian ships, the patrol frigate Alvand and the supply vessel Khark, were en route to Syria, which Israel regards as an enemy, on a purported training mission, Iranian officials have said. The Syrian destination also appeared to be a bid by Tehran to show its close ties with Damascus, commentators said.
It was the first time since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution that two of its naval ships have sailed through the Suez Canal. Iran's semiofficial Fars news agency reported in late January that the country's navy cadets had been dispatched on a year-long mission of training to defend cargo ships and oil tankers against Somali pirates. According to that report, the cadets were to travel through the Gulf of Aden into the Red Sea and continue through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean Sea. The agency said that the British-built Alvand, which weighs 1,500 tonnes, is typically equipped with torpedoes and anti-ship missiles, while the bigger and also British-made 33,000-tonne Khark has a crew of 250 and room for up to three helicopters.
Iran's move has also raised speculation in Israel that the country was looking to transfer weapons to the Lebanese group Hizbollah, which is backed by Iran and Syria and with which Israel fought a 34-day war in the middle of 2006. However, Egypt's official Middle East News Agency reported that Iran's request said the ships were not carrying arms or nuclear and chemical materials.
The 190-kilometre Suez Canal is a major international trade waterway that allows ships to pass from the Middle East and navigate between Europe and Asia without sailing around the southern tip of Africa. The route of the ships was bound to take them into the Mediterranean along the coasts of Israel and the Gaza Strip. Vessels transport about 2.5 per cent of world oil output through the canal, according to the investment bank Goldman Sachs.
The US, Israel's staunchest ally, has also monitored the ships' route, with White House press secretary Jay Carney saying on Friday that Iran does not show "responsible behaviour in the region, which is always a concern to us."