- Associated Press - Sunday, February 20, 2011

CAIRO | Iran’s first attempt in decades to send warships through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean on Europe’s — and NATO’s — southern flank could further destabilize the Middle East, a region already reeling from an unprecedented wave of anti-government rebellions.

Egypt’s new military rulers, who took power from ousted former President Hosni Mubarak this month, have granted two Iranian warships passage through the strategic waterway — something Israel has made clear it views as a provocation. Still, Egypt appeared to have no other choice, because an international convention regulating shipping says the canal must be open “to every vessel of commerce or of war.”

Iranian warships have not passed through the Suez Canal since 1979.

Canal officials said Monday that the two Iranian naval ships — the frigate Alvand and the supply ship Kharq — are expected to start their passage through the strategic waterway early Tuesday. The ships, which are close to the southern entrance of the canal, are expected to pay a fee of $290,000 for the passage, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they aren’t authorized to speak publicly about the matter.

The canal linking the Red Sea and the Mediterranean enables ships to avoid a lengthy sail around Africa. The Iranian ships are headed for a training mission in Syria, a close ally of Iran’s hard-line Islamic rulers and an archenemy of Israel.

Iran is suspected by the U.S. and Israel of gearing its nuclear program to develop weapons, something Tehran denies. Israel considers Iran an existential threat and is watching the warships’ movements with growing alarm.

The request by the Iranians to send the warships through Suez is a test of the foreign-policy intentions of Egypt’s new military rulers, the gatekeepers of the canal. Mr. Mubarak, an ally of Israel and the U.S. who ruled for nearly 30 years, was toppled Feb. 11 by a popular uprising, and the country is now run by a military council.

Iran wants to say to the world, to the U.S., Israel and other countries in the Mideast that it has reach not only in areas close to it, but also farther away, including in the Mediterranean,” said Ephraim Kam of the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel.

He said Iran also is signaling to Israel that it is prepared to protect its allies Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon on Israel’s northern and southern flanks.

A senior Iranian naval commander told an Iranian news agency already several days before the Jan. 25 start of the revolt in Egypt that Iran planned to dispatch warships to the Mediterranean, via the Suez Canal. The commander said the mission was to gather intelligence on the region and train navy cadets to protect Iranian commerce ships from Somali pirates.

But Iran appears to have more far-reaching objectives, including asserting itself as a regional power and testing whether Egypt’s new rulers will stick to Mr. Mubarak’s pro-Western line, analysts said.