Iran Warships Expected to Arrive at Suez Canal Early Tuesday

Canal officials say ships to pay a fee of $290,000 for the crossing; if ships make the passage, it will mark the first time in three decades that Iranian military ships have traveled the canal that links the Red Sea to the Mediterranean.

Suez Canal officials say two Iranian naval vessels are expected to start their passage through the strategic waterway early Tuesday.

The officials have further stated that the ships are expected to pay a fee of $290,000 for the crossing. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they aren't authorized to speak publicly about the matter.

Suez Canal - AP - Feb 17, 2011

If the ships make the passage, it will mark the first time in three decades that Iranian military ships have traveled the canal that links the Red Sea to the Mediterranean.

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Israel has made clear it views the passage as a provocation.

Canal officials said Monday that the ships, a frigate and a supply vessel, are close to the southern entrance of the canal.

Canal authorities can deny passage only if they decide ships pose a safety risk. The ships are headed for the Syrian port of Latakia for a training mission.

The Israel Navy is monitoring the two ships, 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.

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 Sunday'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.