Iran requests passage for warships through Suez Canal


An Egyptian patrol ship navigates the Suez Canal between Port Said and Ismailia, about 100 kms northeast of Cairo.


Cris Bouroncle

Egypt is "studying" a request by Iran to allow two Iranian naval ships to pass through the Suez Canal, a move that Israel says will be a “provocation.”

"We sent it to the relevant authorities," the Egypt foreign ministry spokesman told Reuters, adding the request had been passed to the defense ministry and the Suez Canal Authority.

He did not say when any decision on such a crossing would be made.

The news came a day after an unnamed Egyptian official was widely reported as saying that plans by Iran to sail two ships — a frigate and a supply vessel — through the canal had been withdrawn, without giving a reason.

To pass through the strategic waterway, naval vessels need the approval of the foreign and defense ministries. Iran has said the two ships, a frigate and supply ship, planned to cross.

The 120-mile waterway carries about 2.5 percent of world oil output, according to Goldman Sachs Group Inc., and is a key route for ships carrying Asian consumer goods to Europe.

Oil prices had spiked Wednesday on news of a potential crossing.

Israel had reacted angrily to the plans, with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman painting them as a challenge to the West and warning that Jerusalem could not "forever ignore these provocations."

Israeli leaders have voiced concern that Iran may exploit the instability in the region following the Feb. 11 ousting of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jan. 14 overthrow of Tunisia's leadership. Iran cracked down on its own anti-government protest on Feb. 14.

The Telegraph newspaper suggested that Iran was playing a game of cat-and-mouse with the Suez Canal. "It can hardly be coincidence that Tehran is now attempting to send two naval vessels through this vital trade artery at a time when the whole region is convulsed by political instability," wrote the paper's foreign editor, Middle East expert Con Coughlin.

According to Scott Lucas, a professor of American Studies at the University of Birmingham in England and founder of EA Worldview, a website on foreign policy and international affairs, the request may simply be “posturing."

“If they are turned down, which they expect, they can say it’s part of efforts by various groups to conspire against them,” Lucas said, according to Bloomberg. “They are pushing buttons.”

U.S. officials, meanwhile, played down the significance of a Suez crossing, which Iran announced weeks ago. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley acknowledged Thursday that there were Iranian ships in the Red Sea, but said the U.S. didn't know their destination or intentions. Asked if the U.S. was tracking the ships' movements, Crowley said: "We always watch what Iran is doing."

Other U.S. officials said Iran was sending the ships through the Suez to provoke a reaction from the U.S. and Israel.

The state-run Islamic Republic News Agency quoted Iran's ambassador to Syria, Ahmad Mousavi on Friday as saying that the Iranian vessels would go to Syria, where they would anchor “for a few days” on a trip that is “routine according to international law” and part of Iran’s strategic relations with Syria. The IRNA report cited the Egyptian foreign ministry as saying the request is at the next stage of the process, referral to Egypt’s defense ministry.