Iran Warships Steam Up the Suez Canal

Iran sailed warships up the Suez Canal for the first time in 30 years this week in what is widely interpreted as a clear exercise of gunboat diplomacy aimed at reassuring allies in Syria and Lebanon, showing Iran’s new influence with the post-Mubarak government in Egypt and testing Israel at a time of spreading unrest throughout the Middle East .

“The passage of the Iranian ships is part of the comprehensive struggle that Iran is conducting against the West for domination and control in the Middle East” Israel’s Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom was quoted as saying by AP.  “The objective of the Iranian provocation is to signal to the leaders of the Arab world who the new leader is in the Middle East”.

Israel and the U.S. have led international efforts to block Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons that could transform the radical Islamic state into a regional superpower.  Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has repeatedly threatened to “wipe the Jewish State off the map” and has recently been extending his global reach, which now stretches into parts of Africa and Latin America .  

Iran’s missile-carrying frigate Alvand and the 33,000-ton supply ship Kharg entered the canal from the Red Sea at 05:45 GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) on Tuesday, exiting into the Mediterranean at 13:30 GMT.

The move could signal a shift by Egypt, which controls the Suez crossing.  Its recently deposed president, Hosni Mubarak, who was a close ally of Israel and the U.S., banned the Iranian Navy from using the canal.  He was toppled in a popular uprising two weeks ago.  

Iran’s naval squadron, equipped with three helicopters and a combined crew of almost 400 men, was headed for Syria, where the ships were expected to dock at the port of Latakia on Wednesday, and remain for an unspecified period of time that could extend up to a year, according to some reports.

Iran’s deputy navy chief,  Rear Adm. Gholam-Reza Khadem Biqam, has described the mission as a “training exercise” that could also involve maneuvers off the coast of Syria’s neighbor, Lebanon.  The move seems part of a wider military operation by Iran and Syria to reinforce a base from which they can project into the Mediterranean and support a new government in Lebanon controlled by their terrorist ally, Hezbollah.

Iran and Syria have been close allies for decades.  They have remained largely unaffected by Middle Eastern revolts that have toppled governments in Egypt and Tunisia and shaken pro-U.S. regimes in Yemen and Bahrain.  Bahrain serves as the U.S. Fifth Fleet’s naval base in the Persian Gulf.

Iran quickly put down street protests that erupted in its capital, Tehran, last week.  No major unrest has broken out in Syria, which is consolidating its regional position through Hezbollah proxies assuming power in Lebanon following the resignation of pro-West Prime Minister Saad Hariri last month.

Hezbollah has fought several wars with Israel along Lebanon’s northern border and is believed to have 45,000 rockets and missiles stored for a future offensive.  “The current naval move by Iran is occurring after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to southern Lebanon and his hostile statements against Israel” in January, observed Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said that last week that he was confident his men would “capture Galilee” in a new war with Israel.  Israeli officials fear that reinforced Iranian military activity around its borders could also strengthen the radical Islamic Hamas movement on the Gaza Strip.  

A naval presence on the eastern Mediterranean might also allow Iran to intervene in the current civil war in Libya, where longtime dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi is being strenuously challenged by rival Muslim rebels who have established their own caliphate, or Islamic system of government, in the port of Benghazi.

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