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Egypt to let Iranian warships through Suez Canal

By the CNN Wire Staff
The frigate Alvand, pictured in 2009, is one of the two ships Iran wants to send through the Suez Canal.
The frigate Alvand, pictured in 2009, is one of the two ships Iran wants to send through the Suez Canal.
  • Egypt agreed to allow two Iranian warships to cross through the Suez Canal
  • They're expected to be the first such ships to sail through the canal since 1979
  • Both ships are armed with missiles, analyst says
  • The canal is an internal body of water over which Egypt has sovereignty

(CNN) -- Egypt has agreed to allow two Iranian warships to cross through the Suez Canal in a move that puts the country's new military regime in a prickly position with its Israeli neighbor.

The post-Hosni Mubarak caretaker government gave the green light to the Iranian warships Friday, state media reported. They are expected to be the first Iranian warships to sail through the Suez since the Islamic republic's 1979 revolution.

The canal is an internal body of water, and as such, Egypt has sovereignty over it. But Egypt also is bound by the 1978 Camp David Accords, which guarantee the right of free passage by ships belonging to Israel and all other nations on the basis of the Constantinople Convention of 1888. Before that, Egypt did not allow Israeli ships to sail through the canal.

Last week, Egypt's newly empowered military government said it would honor all its international treaties. That would include Camp David.

"This is awkward -- at a minimum," said David Schenker, director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Schenker said the Iranians had asked for a frigate -- the Alvand -- and a military supply ship -- the Kharg -- to cross into the Mediterranean. Both are armed with missiles, he said, adding that their passage would create more uncertainty in the region.

"It's destabilizing. It raises tension, particularly in this time of transition in Egypt," Schenker said. "This is typical of Syrian-Iranian opportunism."

Egypt's decision, analysts said, could show the direction that the military caretakers intend to take the Arab world's most populous nation.

"It does raise an unwelcome political issue that has to be resolved," said Cmdr. James Kraska of the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island.

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Iran said earlier that the flotilla was on a yearlong intelligence-gathering and training mission to prepare cadets to defend Iran's cargo ships and oil tankers from the threat of attack by Somali pirates, according to the semi-official Fars News Agency.

Asked about Iran's assertion that the ships are going to Syria for training, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Friday, "My initial response to that would be we're highly skeptical of that."

Asked whether he was concerned about the ships' travel plans, he said, "It's not really about the ships. It's what are the ships carrying, what's their destination, what's the cargo on board, where is it going, to whom, for what benefit. We have, you know, ongoing concerns."

Those concerns were shared by the White House, where Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters aboard Air Force One, "We're monitoring that, obviously, but we also would say that Iran does not have a great track record for responsible behavior in the region, which is always a concern for us."

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Israel's allies should pay close attention to the situation.

"We expect the international community to act speedily with determination against the Iranian provocations, designed to deteriorate the situation in the area, and put the Iranians in their place," he said.

The Israeli Defense Ministry said it was monitoring the movement of the Iranian ships and alerted its allies.

The Suez Canal is a key waterway for international trade. It connects the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea, allowing ships to navigate between Europe and Asia without having to go around Africa. Millions of barrels of oil move through the Suez every day en route to Europe and North America.

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