The Israel Navy is monitoring the two Iranian naval ships that are expected to transit the Suez Canal and enter the Mediterranean Sea late Monday afternoon, but no special preparations are being made amid intelligence assessments that the ships pose no threat to Israel.
After the Alvand and its supply ship, the Kharq, left the Persian Gulf port of Bandar Abbas more than three weeks ago, the frigate, its crew augmented by naval cadets, conducted maneuvers in the Gulf of Aden and in the Red Sea.
According to the information available to Israel's defense establishment, the ships are due to enter the Suez Canal Monday, after Iran requested and received approval from Egypt's canal authority. Canal authorities can deny passage only if they decide ships pose a safety risk. The ships are headed for the Syrian port of Latakia.
Despite the media and diplomatic fuss surrounding what will be the first voyage by an Iranian warship to the Mediterranean in more than three decades, the Israel Navy and the Israel Defense Forces are not taking any special measures. An IDF source yesterday said that as long as the ships, as expected, stay outside Israel's territorial waters and make no aggressive moves, there will be no confrontation.
The ships are not thought to be carrying arms shipments for Syria or Hezbollah, as was another Latakia-bound cargo ship stopped by the Israel Navy in November 2009, which turned out to be carrying hundreds of tons of weapons destined for Hezbollah warehouses.
Notwithstanding the reassuring remarks by security officials, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at yesterday's weekly cabinet meeting that in sending the warships through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean, Iran was trying to exploit the recent instability in Egypt. He did not suggest there would be an Israeli response.
"I think we see today what kind of unstable area we live in, an area where Iran is trying to exploit the situation that's been created to try to expand its influence by sending two warships through the Suez Canal," Netanyahu said.
"Israel views this Iranian move with gravity, and this move, along with other moves and developments, reinforces what I've been saying in recent years - that Israel's defense needs will increase and the defense budget will grow accordingly," Netanyahu said.
In a weekend press release, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that Israel is monitoring the ships' movements and has briefed friendly nations on the matter.
Although the British-built Alvand is the Iranian navy's flagship and is armed with Chinese-made missiles, Israeli military officials were confident yesterday that in the event of a confrontation the Israel Navy could sink it without advance preparation. "If the navy were to make a positive identification, it could be sunk almost immediately," one senior official said last night. "We're not even dealing with it, because [the Iranians] are only creating a provocation. From the military and marine perspective, the moment the ships enter the Mediterranean, they're entering a trap."
According to Ephraim Kam of Israel's Institute for National Security Studies: "Iran wants to say to the world, to the United States, 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."
He said Iran is also signaling to Israel that it is prepared to protect its allies Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon on Israel's northern and southern flanks.
Israeli warships have traversed the Suez Canal in the past, and in at least one case, an Israeli Dolphin-class submarine also passed through what appeared to be a message to Iran. Some foreign media reports say that Dolphins can fire nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.