ISMAILIA, Egypt (Reuters) - The Suez Canal has been told that plans by two Iranian naval ships to cross the waterway were canceled, an official said on Thursday, removing a potential policy headache for Egypt’s new army rulers.
It was not immediately clear which side was behind the cancellation. Any naval vessels passing through the canal, a strategic international shipping route, must first have approval from Egypt’s foreign and defense ministries, officials said.
If the ships had crossed, it would have been the first time since Iran’s 1979 revolution that Iranian warships had passed through the canal, officials said.
Iran’s revolution poisoned ties with Egypt, which signed a peace treaty with Israel that year.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman had said plans for the two Iranian warships to sail through the canal en route to Syria were a “provocation.” He had said the ships were expected to pass through the Suez Canal overnight on Wednesday.
Israel’s state-funded Channel One television said 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.
The Suez Canal Authority was “informed today about the cancellation of two scheduled trips of two Iranian warships and no new date was set to cross the Suez as part of the southern convoy coming from the Red Sea,” an Egyptian canal official, who declined to be named, told Reuters.
The official, who identified the ships as the Alvand and Kharg, said the vessels were near the Saudi Arabian Red Sea port of Jeddah. Shipping experts had earlier said the ships were the Alvand frigate and Kharg supply ship.
Ahmed El Manakhly, a member of the canal’s board who is responsible for shipping movement, had said the ships had not joined Thursday’s early morning northbound convoy in the canal and were not on the waiting list to pass through on Friday.
The northbound ship convoy starts entering the canal from the Red Sea end at 6 a.m. (0400 GMT) daily, the Suez Canal website says. Ships head south from the Mediterranean at other times of the day.
Another canal source said 26 ships, including one French warship, had entered in the morning northbound convoy but also said the convoy did not include Iranian warships.
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.
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.
The Suez Canal is a vital commercial and strategic waterway between Europe and the Middle East and Asia. It is also a major source of revenues for the Egyptian government.
Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem, Writing by Edmund Blair, editing by Peter Millership