Two Iranian naval ships entered the Suez Canal today, a historic crossing widely viewed as a move to boost its regional clout amid political upheaval in the Middle East.
The ships, a frigate and a supply ship, are believed to be heading to Syria for training exercises.
The crossing, Iran's first since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, has angered Israel. To reach Syria the ships will sail along the Israeli coast, causing jitters in that country, Iran's arch-foe. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu previously warned he would take a "grave view" of the incident.
From a military standpoint, however, the Iranian vessels pose little threat, according to Richard Dalton, a Middle East expert at Britain's Chatham House.
“They are elderly, one is a supply vessel and the other is a 1950s or 1960s-specification frigate,” Dalton said. “No regional navies have anything to fear from this. To suggest that this is a military provocation is absurd."
Iran's decision to send ships through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean after a three-decade pause is widely seen as an attempt to increase its presence in the region at a time when popular uprisings are changing the Middle East's political landscape.
The Suez Canal, which cuts through Egypt, allows ships to pass between the Gulf and Europe without circumnavigating the southern tip of Africa.
Uzi Rabi, an Iran expert based in Jerusalem, said Tehran is seeking to "capitalize" on the political unrest sweeping the Middle East.
"What I think we have here is an Iranian attempt to send a message to the region, and maybe the world at large, that there is a new power equation,” Rabi said.
The passage of the Iranian ships taps into larger Israeli concerns about the uprisings in Egypt and other Arab nations traditionally aligned with its ally the United States.
Polls in Egypt suggest the new political forces will be less accommodating to Israel and the United States than fallen President Hosni Mubarak, although no group has called for the abrogation of the 1978 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, known as the Camp David Accords.
Iran's Suez crossing comes just a week after the U.S. aircraft carrier Enterprise traveled through the Suez Canal in the other direction.
Iran Up, United States Down
Dalton said the Iranians have traditionally maintained a naval presence in the northern Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden and this may be an extension of that.
“[The Iranians want] a presence in the Mediterranean at a time when they believe the decisive events in the region are resulting in a decline in the influence of their adversary, the United States," he said.
Tehran's decision to send ships across the canal also put its relations with Egypt to the test after the fall of Mubarak.
Egypt's ruling military council faced the risk of souring its already strained ties with Iran by denying it access to the canal.
By allowing the Iranian ships, however, Egyptian authorities are likely to have upset many in both Israel and the United States.
Egypt had little choice in the matter but to grant the passage, since an international convention regulating shipping stipulates that the Suez Canal must be open "to every vessel of commerce or of war."
Netanyahu reportedly discussed the matter with the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, James Cunningham.
The two vessels are expected to exit the canal by sunset today.
written by Claire Bigg with contributions from agency reports