Israel says Iran warships to transit Suez for Syria

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Two Iranian warships planned to sail through the Suez Canal en route to Syria on Wednesday, Israel’s foreign minister said, calling it a “provocation,” but the vessels were seen as posing no serious military threat.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) speaks during the Conference Of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in Jerusalem February 16, 2011. Israel said on Wednesday it had alerted "friendly nations" in the Middle East about two Iranian warships planning to pass through Egypt's Suez Canal for Syria. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Israel’s state-funded Channel One television said Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a vociferously far-right partner in the conservative coalition, had spoken out of turn as the Defense Ministry “had preferred to ignore” the ships’ approach.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Israel was tracking them and had alerted “friendly nations in the region” accordingly.

Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper described the two Iranian ships as a MK-5 frigate and a supply vessel, which would not present a significant danger to the Jewish state.

Still, with Israeli-Iranian tensions long running high, the theoretical possibility of the geographically distant enemies encountering each others’ forces in the Mediterranean Sea was enough to send oil prices surging.

Brent crude rose to 29-month highs, helped by jitters over clashes in Iran, Yemen and Bahrain that raised concern about oil flow disruption. Brent crude rose $2.40 to $104.04 at 12:08 p.m. EST.

Syria is one of Israel’s neighboring adversaries. It has an alliance with Iran which has deepened along with Tehran’s isolation from the West over its disputed nuclear program, which the Jewish state sees as an existential threat.

“Tonight, two Iranian warships are meant to pass through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean Sea and reach Syria, something that has not happened in many years,” Lieberman said in a speech.

“To my regret, the international community is not showing readiness to deal with the recurring Iranian provocations. The international community must understand that Israel cannot forever ignore these provocations.”

The U.S. reaction was cautious. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Washington was aware of the ships but had no information about what they were doing or where they were going.

“I don’t know that we have any understanding at this point of what those ships are doing there or where they are going ... We’ll follow this with some curiosity,” he said.

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Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency reported on January 26 that Iranian navy cadets were going on a year-long training mission into the Red Sea and through Suez to the Mediterranean.

They were training to defend “the country’s cargo ships and oil tankers” against the threat of Somali pirates, it said.

The vessels will “dock at a Syrian port for a year,” a senior Israeli official told Yedioth Ahronoth, adding there was no justification for Iran to put warships into the Mediterranean.

The Suez Canal is a vital commercial and strategic waterway between Europe and the Middle East and Asia.

“The Suez Canal does not (stop) any commercial ships from passing as long as we are not in a state of war,” said Ahmed El Manakhly, a member of Egypt’s Suez Canal board.

He said warships of any country need approval to pass from Egypt’s defense and foreign ministries. Neither ministry had sent word as yet of an Iranian request.

Yedioth Ahronoth reported that no Iranian naval vessels had passed through Suez since the Islamic Republic was established in 1979, poisoning Tehran-Cairo relations.

“As long as they (Iranians) are not conducting some sort of belligerent operation I think they would have a right to go through the canal like any other country,” said James Kraska, professor of international law at the U.S. Naval War College.

Middle East analyst Neil Partrick said he presumed Iran planned the mission before Egypt’s popular uprising overthrew President Hosni Mubarak last week, but “the decision not to cancel the journey, once the turmoil in the region had begun, could be a sign that Iran is prepared to risk tensions.”

“This might be a provocative move at a time when Egypt is moving into a period of uncertainty,” he said.

A Syrian berth would put the ships near Lebanon, whose Hezbollah movement, an Iran ally, fought Israel in 2006.

U.S. Senator Mark Kirk, a former navy officer, said Iranian warships transiting the Suez Canal would be legal and also provocative, but “this does not pose a threat to Israel. They could sink these vessels in a long hour.” But this did show the increased reach of the Iranian navy, Kirk added.

Most military ships that pass through the canal are American, along with some French and British. Two Israeli destroyers and submarine passed through last year.

Admiral James Burnell-Nugent, former commander-in-chief, fleet, of Britain’s Royal Navy, described the action as a form of mischief.

“I would put it in the manipulative, stirring the pot category, rather than the military, strategic category.

“And the more wound up the Israelis get over it, the more the Iranians will be laughing.”

Additional reporting by Douglas Hamilton in Jerusalem, Dina Zayed and Andrew Hammond in Cairo, William Maclean and Jonathan Saul in London, Susan Cornwell in Washington; editing by Mark Heinrich