TEHRAN Two Iranian warships have docked in Syria, a military commander said on Thursday, dismissing Israeli condemnations of the manoeuvre as a "provocation."
Coinciding with political turmoil in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world, Iran's decision to send warships close to Israeli territory has rattled politicians in the Jewish state.
The ships arrived on Wednesday night after passing through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean, the first Iranian navy vessels to do so since Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Iran's navy commander told reporters the warships were not performing any military exercises but were "on a routine and friendly visit and carry the message of peace and friendship to world countries."
"The Zionist regime had been exaggerating this issue because it wants to create tension among the brotherly relations between countries in the region," Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari told state TV.
Israel's Maariv newspaper cited on Wednesday unsourced 'assessments' that the ships were bearing on board advanced weaponry intended for the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah.
But Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak was dismissive of such a possibility.
"It's a provocation. I don't like it. But I don't think that any one of us should be worried by it," Barak said in remarks broadcast on CNN on Thursday.
"If they were bringing rockets or weapons or explosives to Hamas or Hezbollah, we would have probably acted against them. But they are just coming, with weapons on them, but they are coming with cadets, navy cadets, to visit a Syrian port," he added.
Iran's Sayyari said his country had made the decision to send the warships "based on international norms aimed at fostering friendly relations with the regional states and Muslim countries by carrying the message of peace and friendship to those countries," according to state television.
The website of Iran's state Press TV said the Alvand, a 1,500-tonne patrol frigate, armed with torpedoes and anti-ship missiles, and the 33,000-tonne supply vessel Khark were docked at Syria's main port, Latakia.
Egypt's decision to allow the ships through its canal was made under an interim government after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak. Iran is hoping to restore ties, cut for decades, with Cairo, an U.S. ally which has a peace treaty with Israel.
Analysts say Iran sees itself as benefiting from the upheaval across the Middle East as leaders sympathetic to the United States are unseated or weakened.
(Reporting by Reza Derakhshi; Writing by Robin Pomeroy; Editing by Jon Hemming)