Feb. 17 (Bloomberg) -- Iran is arranging with Egyptian officials to have two of its warships use the Suez Canal, Iranian state-run Press TV said. The Suez Canal Authority said after today’s report that no Iranian naval vessels had been granted permission to sail through the waterway.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said yesterday that Iran was planning later that day to send two gunboats through the canal to Syria, which would involve heading through the eastern Mediterranean, off Israel’s coast. He called the move a “provocation.”
“It’s meant as a clear provocation to Israel, and is also an attempt by Iran to change the subject from the fact that, while Tehran welcomed the downfall of the Egyptian government, they have a problem at home right now where a certain section of their own people would like to see that regime also fall,” Jonathan Spyer, a political scientist at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya near Tel Aviv, said in a phone interview.
Concern that anti-government unrest in Egypt would disrupt canal traffic sent oil prices to a two-year high on Feb. 2. The 120-mile (190-kilometer) Suez Canal 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.
Iran’s opposition called for nationwide rallies Feb. 20 to mourn those killed in anti-government protests this week, according to the website of former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, who challenged President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 2009 election. Iran has sought to crush anti-government protests at home, including Feb. 14 rallies inspired by the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia that ousted their leaders.
Press TV cited an unidentified naval official as saying Iranian officials were in contact with Egypt to arrange passage for the warships and that Egyptian authorities believe there was nothing wrong with their planned journey. The broadcaster said the official was confirming previous reports that Iranian warships would use the waterway.
“We don’t have any information or a license from any ministry in Egypt,” the canal’s head of traffic, Ahmed El Manakhly, said by phone after the Iranian report. The Defense Ministry must approve any vessel’s use of the canal, he told Bloomberg Television before the Iranian report. “According to the rules which govern navigation through Suez -- international rules -- we cannot forbid any vessel from passing through the Suez Canal if there is no war between Egypt and that country.”
Oil prices rose after the Iranian report, with Brent crude increasing 42 cents to $104.20 a barrel. In New York, crude rose 23 cents to $85.22 a barrel.
The Iranian navy’s use of the canal would be “both a provocation and their right,” Cliff Kupchan, Iran analyst at the Eurasia Group, said in a telephone interview from Washington. “Given they haven’t done it in a long time and they are doing it in the context of Middle East instability, it is certainly a provocation.”
Kupchan said the use of the canal by Iranian warships would be important because it would “signal Iran’s growing influence in this time of flux.” He said, “These guys are masters at disinformation, roiling markets, keeping everyone guessing. Sometimes they pull the punch, sometimes they throw the punch.”
Iran hasn’t sent warships through the canal in “many years,” Lieberman said yesterday. The ships are a British-built, 1960s-era Mk-5 frigate and a supply vessel, according to Israel’s Yedioth Ahronot newspaper.
Lieberman, who made the remarks in a speech in Jerusalem to U.S. Jewish leaders, said another provocation by Iran was the October visit to southern Lebanon by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Israeli minister compared Ahmadinejad to Hitler in a December interview in Newsweek.
The Iranian vessels are meant to be on a cadet training cruise and have a right to use the canal, Gary Sick, a member of the U.S. National Security Council under presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and the principal White House aide on Iran during the 1979-81 hostage crisis, said in a telephone interview.
“As far as I know, this is not an attack on anyone,” he said. “It’s hard to see how two ships on a training cruise through Jeddah and making a stop through the Red Sea is a threat to Israel.” The Israeli foreign minister “would certainly complain if Israel was not allowed to pass through the Suez by a successor government that was very critical of Israeli policies, and he’d be very right,” Sick said.
Israeli leaders have voiced concern that Iran may exploit the instability in the region following the Feb. 11 ousting of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Iran has accused the U.S. and Israel of stoking dissent in the country and rejects international sanctions against its nuclear program. Iran has said discussions of Israel’s nuclear development should be part of any talks on its own atomic work. Israel hasn’t confirmed or denied possession of nuclear weapons.
Israel and the U.S. suspect that Iran’s nuclear program is aimed at producing weapons. Iran says its atomic installations are for generating power. The United Nations has imposed four rounds of sanctions on Iran over its nuclear development.
“The international community must understand that Israel can’t ignore forever these kinds of provocations,” Lieberman said in the speech in which he discussed the ships.