Tensions were rising in Israel as two Iranian naval vessels approached Mediterranean waters Thursday morning. The boats, which departed Iran two-and-a-half weeks ago with Syria as their destination, were expected to cross the Suez Canal on Wednesday night. This is the first time since the Islamic Revolution in 1979 that Iranian war vessels have passed through Mediterranean waters, across from Israel's coast.
In recent days, Israel has asked the United States and several other countries to take measures to block the Iranian boats' passage through the Suez Canal. Because of the political crisis in Egypt, however, they were unable to intervene on Israel's behalf.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said yesterday that Israel is closely monitoring the progress of the Iranian ships.
At this stage, Israel has no information indicating that the Iranian vessels have any destination in sight other than Syria - there is no evidence that they are heading, for example, to the Gaza Strip. Yet Israel's navy remains on high alert, ready for any contingency.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said yesterday that the Iranian move is a provocation aimed at Israel and the entire international community. "This is something that has not occurred for many years," he said. "This is a provocation which proves that the Iranians' self-confidence and chutzpah is growing from day to day. This current move [with the ships] is occurring after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to Southern Lebanon and his hostile statements against Israel."
Lieberman criticized the international community for not taking steps to intervene and for not sending warnings to the Iranians. "The international community must understand that Israel cannot ignore forever such provocations, which are designed to aggravate the situation in the region," Israel's foreign minister declared.
The Iranian naval force headed for Syria is comprised of a frigate and a supply ship. The two Iranian ships received unusual authorization to anchor at the Jedda harbor in Saudi Arabia, and they remained there for the past several days. It appears that the Iranian ships yesterday received clearance from Egyptian authorities to cross through the Suez Canal.
The Egyptian company that runs the Suez Canal denied the claim.
Ahmed el-Manakhli, head of the canal operations room, said warships must get permission 48 hours before crossing, and so far, no request for permission had been received.
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