Feb. 17 (Bloomberg) -- Two Iranian warships in the Red Sea are preparing to transit Egypt’s Suez Canal en route to Syria, Israel’s foreign minister said, calling it another of Iran’s “provocations.”
The Suez Canal Authority’s head of traffic, Ahmed El Manakhly, speaking by telephone, said yesterday that he hadn’t been informed of any Iranian warships planning to pass through the waterway. El Manakhly said military ships passing through the canal must first obtain permission from the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said yesterday that Iran has not sent warships through the canal in “many years.” Their route to Syria would involve sailing through the eastern Mediterranean, off Israel’s coast. The ships are a British-built, 1960’s-vintage Mk-5 frigate and a supply vessel, according to Israel’s Yedioth Ahronot newspaper.
“Regretfully, the international community isn’t showing readiness to deal with the recurring Iranian provocations,” Lieberman said yesterday in a speech to U.S. Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. “The international community must understand that Israel can’t ignore forever these kinds of provocations.”
Lieberman cited the October visit to southern Lebanon by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who he compared to Hitler in a December interview in Newsweek, as another provocation.
Gasoline climbed to a 28-month high on the New York Mercantile Exchange, rising with crude oil and heating oil on concern that Middle Eastern oil shipments will be disrupted. Crude oil for March delivery rose 67 cents, or 0.8 percent, to settle at $84.99 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange yesterday. Brent crude for April delivery, the European benchmark, added $2.14, or 2.1 percent, to $103.78 on the London-based ICE Futures Europe exchange. Heating oil for March delivery gained 4.58 cents, or 1.7 percent, to $2.7748 a gallon on the Nymex.
The U.S. is monitoring two Iranian ships in the Red Sea, said State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley. The canal authority said no Iranian warship has used the waterway since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, according to a BBC News report.
“What their intention is, what their destination is, I can’t say,” Crowley told reporters in Washington. “We’ll be watching to see what they do. We always watch what Iran is doing.”
There is no legal barrier in this situation to Iranian warships passing through the canal, according to Commander James Kraska, professor of international law at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. In addition to treaties dating back to the late 19th century, the Camp David peace accords that Egypt signed with Israel said the canal is open to all traffic, he said.
The Egyptians can refuse passage to the ships if “they are carrying nuclear arms or nuclear materials or there are drugs or there are terrorists on board,” said said Roy S. Lee, an adjunct professor at Columbia Law School in New York and executive secretary to the International Criminal Court Conference. “If they refuse, they cannot board the Iranian ship. The Iranian ship cannot go through. Then they have an incident.”
The USS Enterprise Carrier Strike Group transited the Suez Canal Feb. 15 on a pre-planned mission to the Fifth Fleet area to help with operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to the U.S. military.
“Our ability to use the Suez Canal in a routine manner and according to long-standing plans demonstrates the ongoing stability of this important waterway,” said Rear Admiral Terry B. Kraft, commander of the group, in an e-mailed statement.
Israel is monitoring the movements of the Iranian ships and “has briefed friendly nations on this subject,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak said late yesterday in a statement.
Israeli leaders have voiced concern that Iran may exploit the period of political instability in the region following the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Iran has sought to crush anti-government protests at home.
“Iran is interested in shifting attention away from the internal demonstrations, and a military confrontation is always a convenient means of doing this,” Gerald Steinberg, professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel, said in a telephone interview. “This is currently a test of Israel and Egypt and the U.S. in the wake of the regime change that is taking place in Egypt.”
Israel and the U.S. suspect Iran’s nuclear program is aimed at producing atomic weapons. Iran says its nuclear installations are for generating power. The United Nations has imposed four rounds of sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program.
Concern that anti-government unrest in Egypt would disrupt canal traffic sent oil prices to a two-year high on Feb. 2. The Egyptian armed forces, which patrol the waterway, stepped up security and, seeking to prevent groups from taking advantage of the confusion to stage terrorist attacks, won Israeli approval to send troops into the demilitarized Sinai Peninsula for the first time since 1979.
The 120-mile (190-kilometer) channel carries about 2.5 percent of world oil output, according to Goldman Sachs Group Inc., and is crucial for container ships carrying Asian consumer goods to Europe.
The canal handles 40 percent of container volume of Asian-made consumer goods shipped by Maersk Line, the world’s biggest container line, spokesman Michael Christian Storgaard said in an e-mailed response to questions.
Business on the canal, the world’s longest man-made waterway, accounts for about 4 percent of Egypt’s gross domestic product and 8 percent of its current-account receipts, according to Turker Hamzaoglu, emerging markets economist at Bank of America Corp.-Merrill Lynch & Co. in London.
Of the 17,930 vessels that passed through the canal in 2010, 6,901 ships were container carriers, while 2,740 were dry-bulk ships and 884 were crude oil tankers, according to Oslo-based Leth Suez Transit Ltd, a shipping agency specializing in Suez Canal transits.
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