x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Iranian warships pass through Suez canal on way to Syria

Israeli prime minister denounces ships¿ arrival in the region as an Iranian power play, while his foreign minister called their presence 'a provocation'.

Two Iranian naval ships transited the Suez Canal today for the first time since the Islamic revolution, bound for the Mediterranean on a purported training mission that Israel calls a provocation.

A canal official said: "The two ships entered the canal on Tuesday at around 5:45 am [0335 GMT].". Normally, transiting the strategic 163-kilometre (101-mile) waterway takes between 12 and 14 hours.

By noon, the patrol frigate Alvand and support ship Kharg had passed the city of Ismailiya, mid-way along the canal route, reportedly bound for Syria, a destination that necessarily involves passing Israel.

They were due out of the canal by sunset.

The 1,500-tonne Alvand is normally armed with torpedoes and anti-ship missiles, while the larger 33,000-tonne Kharg has a crew of 250 and facilities for up to three helicopters, Iran's official Fars news agency has said.

Both ships were built in Britain during the 1970s for Iran, which ordered them before the Islamic revolution.

Neither ship is carrying chemical or nuclear material, Egypt's state-run MENA news agency has reported.

Their passage into the eastern Mediterranean, a week after the US aircraft carrier Enterprise transited the Suez Canal in the other direction, comes when popular uprisings in Arab nations are changing the political landscape of the Middle East and leaving Israelis worried about their security.

A foreign ministry spokesman, Yigal Palmor, told AFP: "We are talking about an unprecedented Iranian military presence in the Mediterranean, and that is a provocation to which the international community must react firmly."

On Sunday the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, denounced the ships' arrival in the region as an Iranian power play, after his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, called their presence "a provocation".

"Today we are witnessing the instability of the region in which we live and in which Iran is trying to profit by extending its influence by dispatching two warships to cross the Suez Canal," he said.

"Israel views with gravity this Iranian initiative and other developments that reinforce what we have said in past years about the Israel's security needs," he added, according to a statement from his office.

Animosity between Iran and Israel has grown under the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who in October 2005 told a "world without Zionism" conference that the Jewish state would one day be "wiped off the map."

The US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Enterprise transited the Suez Canal on February 15, accompanied by the guided missile cruiser Leyte Gulf and the combat support ship Arctic. It entered the Gulf of Aden three days later.