Israeli intelligence services said yesterday they were “closely monitoring” the progress of two Iranian ships which sailed through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean Sea, en route to a joint naval exercise with Syria.

The intelligence services noted that while the ships do not represent any real threat to either Israeli vessels or Israel’s coast, they were being monitored because of the symbolic value of their passage and to ensure no attempt would be made “at an even greater provocation.”

The Iranian vessels, a frigate and a supply ship, are expected to keep to international waters as they make their way to the Syrian port of Latakia, according to Egyptian reports.

The ships entered the canal at 5.45 A.M. yesterday, and passed into the Mediterranean at 3.30 P.M., a source at the Suez Canal Authority told Reuters. “Their return is expected to be on March 3,” the source added.

The canal’s northern mouth, Port Said, is approximately 100 kilometers ‏(60 miles‏) from Israel, but the ships’ route will take them into the Mediterranean along the coast of Gaza and Israel. The vessels are the first Iranian naval ships to enter the Suez Canal since the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon described the move as “an Iranian provocation,” speaking to Channel 2 television yesterday.

“When you look at the Middle East, wherever the Iranians weigh in, the situation is never good,” he said. “It certainly does not bode well, but these two ships are not an immediate threat against us.”

Speaking at the Eilat-Eilot Renewable Energy Conference yesterday morning, Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom said the passage of the Iranian ships is part of the comprehensive struggle Iran is waging against the West for hegemony and control of the Middle East.

Deputy commander of the Iranian armed forces, Abdolrahim Mousavi, was quoted yesterday by IRNA, the official news agency of Iran, as saying that Israel was “astonished” by the presence of Iranian naval vessels in the canal. Using a term by which Iran refers to the United States, he added: “The global arrogance must know that the Islamic Republic of Iran’s army is fully prepared to defend its goals.”

“The world should know that the presence of Iranian warships in the Suez Canal has taken place ... through the deep guidance of the Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] and our young and brave personnel’s self-confidence,” Mousavi added.

Israel said it would boost military preparations but try to avoid confrontation unless it sees a greater threat from Iran.

Egypt’s ruling military council, facing its first diplomatic headache since taking power on February 11, approved the Iranian vessels’ passage through the canal, a vital global trading route and major source of revenue for the Egyptian authorities.

The decision was difficult for the interim government. Cairo is an ally of the United States, while its relations with Iran have been strained for more than three decades.

Arrow aces trial

Meanwhile, Israel announced yesterday that its Arrow II missile defense system had aced its latest live trial, shooting down a target missile off a U.S. military base on the California coast.

Israeli Defense Ministry official Aryeh Herzog said the test signified the Arrow’s upgrade “to contend with new and additional threats” in the Middle East.