News Analysis: Iranian ships passing Suez a signal to Israel

08:29, February 24, 2011      

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The passage of two Iranian warships through the Suez Canal on Tuesday, the first time for Iranian naval ships to use the strategic international shipping route in over 30 years, came only days after the ouster of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who was seen by Israel as an ally, and raised deep concerns in Israel.

Analysts told Xinhua Wednesday that while the ships themselves do not pose any military risk to Israel, the move is seen as a symbolic move by Iran to show its commitment to its regional allies and a display of its naval capabilities.


Dr. Mordechai Kedar, a senior research fellow at the Begin- Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, told Xinhua that Israel surely doesn't like what happened with the these ships.

"I believe that the Israeli intelligence is now trying to find out what the Iranians are doing here, where they are and what they aim to do with these ships," he said, adding that "if they came only for sightseeing and to see what's going on in the Middle East, that is okay with us."

According to Iranian official news agency Fars, the two ships are on a yearlong intelligence gathering mission to prepare its cadets to defend Iranian commercial vessels from Somali pirates.

While some other analysts said that the timing is accidental, Kedar holds the opinion that this would definitely not have happened as long as Mubarak were in power, because he wouldn't have let the Iranians cross the Suez Canal.

However, after the changes in Cairo, "the Egyptian army is signaling to Israel that things might be rethought and Israel will have to be very careful when dealing with Egypt," he said.

Kedar added that if the Iranians started dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood, an opposition movement in Egypt which was banned by Mubarak from running in elections, the Egyptian army will not like it at all.

"The Iranians have the ability to undermine the stability in Egypt especially after the latest developments," Kedar said, "So maybe in order to the keep good relations with the Iranians, the Egyptians allow those ships to cross the canal."

Kedar believes that people will see an increase in the Israeli defense budget as a result of the overthrow of Mubarak's regime and the possibility of the Muslim Brotherhood gaining more influence in Egyptian politics.


However, in the eyes of Ephraim Kam, deputy director of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, the passage of the two Iranian ships through the canal is more about Israeli- Iranian relations than Israeli-Egyptian.

He pointed out, according to the international agreement, Egypt may only deny access to the canal if the vessels belong to a country that is currently at war with Egypt.

Asked about the timing of the crossing, Kam said it was accidental as "this move was planned before the current unrest in Egypt."

"They were kind of testing the Egyptians and the Israelis, and if everything goes smooth from an Iranian point of view, we might see it again in the future," he told Xinhua.

According to Kam, the two ships by themselves don't pose a risk to Israel, but the main object of the passage is symbolic.

"The Iranians want to indicate that first of all they have a long arm. They go from the Gulf area to the Mediterranean via the Indian Ocean," Kam said.

As the ships are heading to Syria, Iran's main ally in the region, after passing the canal, "they want to indicate to Israel that they are committed to protecting Syria and Hezbollah in case of Israel planning to attack them," Kam said.

Israel and Syria still formally remain at war, though after the start of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process there have been attempts to conduct negotiations between the two neighbors.

Kam's views are partially agreed by Prof. Shlomo Aronson from the department of political science at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who told Xinhua that the vessels so far present " minimal" threat to Israel but "it's a political and psychological move by Iran."

According to Aronson, both Israeli and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) fleets have the capability to deal with the ships. As the ships passed along outside Israeli territorial water, the Israeli navy was reportedly put on high alert.

What is taking place, as Aronson sees, is not so much a change in the strategic relationship between Israel and Egypt, but a change in Iranian intentions as the passing of the ships are seen by Israelis as an Iranian attempt to establish a presence in an area where it hasn't been for the recent decades.

Aronson added that Israel in the past has sent both naval ships and submarines through the canal to display its military capabilities, and that the Iranian decision should be seen in light of this and not the unrest in Egypt.

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