The ships, much delayed, sailed through the canal Tuesday.
In Jerusalem, Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said, “We are talking about an unprecedented Iranian military presence in the Mediterranean. And that is a provocation to which the international community must react firmly.”
It has not.
To many, Israel sounded overwrought. The ships were one small warship, the 1,500-ton frigate Alvand, and one supply ship, the 33,000-ton Kharg. They pose no military threat.
The noise in Israel was being generated by the Foreign Ministry, headed by a far rightwing politician, Avigdor Lieberman. Israeli news reports said Defense Minister Ehud Barak, a former prime minister, had just wanted to ignore the Iranian ships and was disgusted that Lieberman was conducting the Islamic Republic’s propaganda for it by making two small ships sound like a major maritime challenge.
Lieberman called the ship visit to the Mediterranean a “provocation that proves the self-confidence and chutzpah of the Iranians is growing from day to day.” Those words may be inscribed joyously in marble in Tehran! Lieberman said, “To my sorrow, the international community is not dealing with these repeated provocations.… The international community has to understand that Israel cannot forever ignore these provocations.”
Lieberman seemed not to recall that Israel sent one of its submarines through the Suez Canal into the Red Sea in 2009 for naval exercises that the Israeli media described as a warning to Iran.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu called the ship visit an Iranian power play, and said he viewed it “with gravity.” He also said, “Iran is trying to profit [from the current regional instability] by extending its influence by dispatching two warships.”
But Iran had announced the trip by its “fleet” in January before the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Iran said the two ships would carry naval cadets on a one-year cruise, to include a Mediterranean visit, during which the cadets would practice counter-piracy techniques.
That announcement drew little attention and no controversy when it was made. Only when Israel spoke of the cruise as if it were a military action did anyone look.
But no other countries have expressed concern. The United States, for which the freedom of the seas has been one of the paramount concerns since its creation, ignored the Israeli frenzy. One American official , contacted by The Wall Street Journal after the Israeli outburst, said, “As long as they are behaving themselves, they can travel anywhere they want in international waters.”
US State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Iranian ships sailing in international waters is not an issue, effectively repudiating Lieberman’s claim of Iranian “provocations.” The issue, he said, is “what’s their destination, what’s the cargo on board.… We have ongoing concerns about Iranian weapons being supplied to bad actors in the region—but it’s not about the ships.”
Many news agencies joined in the frenzy, however. There were stories saying the ship passage was a test for Egypt. Would the new Egyptian government bow to Iran and allow the ships through or would it bar passage to Iran?
But this was a tempest of ignorance. Egypt cannot bar passage. Under the Constantinople Convention of March 2, 1888, the Suez Canal is open to all ships at all times. Article I of that convention states: “The Suez Maritime Canal shall always be free and open, in time of war as in time of peace, to every vessel of commerce or of war, without distinction of flag.”
Surprisingly, many in Egypt did not know that. International news agencies, including Reuters and the BBC, quoted unnamed canal officials as saying Iran would require permission from Cairo to send its ships through the canal. And Al-Wafd, a century-old Egyptian political party, lauded the new government in Cairo for permitting the Iranian passage, calling it “a harsh rebuff to both the United States and Israel.”
The Australian daily was shocked, shocked by the passage, saying the two ships “could further destabilize the Middle East.”
The Center for Individual Freedom, a conservative group in Alexandria, Virginia, put out a statement saying, “An Iranian warship going through the Suez Canal under the Mubarak reign is unthinkable.”
Ephraim Kim of the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies said Iran was signaling to Israel that it was prepared to protect its clients, Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon. But Israel could easily—not to mention happily—blow the ships out of the water if they took any military action against Israel.
Israel’s Army Radio tried to calm the frenzy, quoting security officials as saying the Iranian ship visit had no military significance whatsoever.
The passage of the ships was the first time any Iranian naval vessels had used the Suez Canal since the 1979 revolution. Canal officials said Iran paid a fee of $290,000 for the passage.
Iran’s embassy in Damascus said the ships would sail to a port in Syria for a routine visit. Before entering the canal, the two ships made port calls in Oman and at Jeddah, the Red Sea port of Saudi Arabia.
Reuters quoted canal officials as saying Iran had reserved space for a return voyage through the canal March 3, which would mean a Mediterranean visit of all of 10 days, about the length of a normal winter vacation.