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Testing the waters

February 22, 2011

With the Middle East experiencing its highest level of instability for many years, tensions increased Tuesday when Egyptian authorities allowed two Iranian warships to pass through the Suez Canal on their way to Syria.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Ahmadinejad flexes Iran's muscles as the region shuddersImage: AP

With autocratic regimes across North Africa and the Middle East under pressure from the wave of popular uprisings sweeping across the Arab world, both interim governments in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt and leaders clinging to power in other restive states are viewing the Iranian move with a mixture of concern and suspicion.

Until recently, Egypt - under ousted President Hosni Mubarak - had prevented Iranian warships using the Suez Canal to reach the Mediterranean Sea for the sake of regional stability, even though there are no restrictions in international law that prevent Iran from using the 63-kilometer (101-mile) waterway. Despite being allowed to pass through the canal, Iranian naval vessels have not done so since before the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Egypt gave the Iranian patrol frigate Alvand and the support ship Kharg permission to pass through the canal, reportedly on their way to Syria, early on Tuesday after ascertaining that the vessels were not carrying weapons or nuclear and chemical materials restricted under UN law.

According to Iran's official Fars news agency, the 500-ton Alvand is normally armed with torpedoes and anti-ship missiles, while the larger 33,000-ton Kharg has a crew of 250 and can carry up to three helicopters.

Egypt's new direction?

NASA image of the Suez Canal
The Iranians will reach the Mediterranean via the canalImage: AP

The u-turn by Egypt over its policy of allowing Iranian vessels through the Suez Canal raises questions over the future direction of the country as it struggles to stabilize after weeks of protests. However, Dr. Florence Gaub, a Middle East expert at the NATO Defense College in Rome, believes that it is unlikely that the decision to allow Iranian ships through the Suez Canal means that Egypt will now become an ally of Iran.

"Removing Mubarak doesn't mean that his secular regime has been removed too," she told Deutsche Welle. "The current military rulers were part of that and will not suddenly become pro-Iran."

Gaub said that Egypt probably looked at the potential for a diplomatic incident when receiving Iran's request for access and made a decision which would have the least impact on its already unstable situation.

"The Egyptians have enough on their plate," she said. "There was no good reason not to allow the Iranians through."

There are also concerns among regional powers which fear Iran's influence in the region that Tehran is exploiting the vacuum that has been created following the collapse of the government in Egypt to expand its reach.

Iran takes center stage

"Iran has tried to capitalise on the Arab uprisings to bolster its own national discourse and image of itself as a regional leader and of the guardian of Islam-inspired revolution," Dr. Elizabeth Iskander, an Iran expert at the London School of Economics and Political Science, told Deutsche Welle. "Arab and Western governments are highly alarmed at events, and Iran's move adds fuel to fears of instability and increased Islamist influence."

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, right, welcomes his Syrian counterpart Bashar Assad
Syria shares uneasy yet important relations with IranImage: AP

"As we have seen from the WikiLeaks documents, Iran has not had good relations with many Arab states and now Tehran sees an opportunity to establish better relations with new regimes," said Gaub." What we've seen is that the best-organized protest movements have been Muslim ones, not necessarily fundamentalist, and Iran understands these better than secularist movements.

Michael Bauer, an Iran expert from the Center for Applied Policy Research at the University of Munich, believes the destination of the ships also points to an Iranian effort to shore up one of its strongest, yet sometimes uneasy, alliances.

"This deployment should be seen as a political signal that underscores Iran's regional ambitions while the destination of Syria is meant to underscore how close the relations between Tehran and Damascus are," Bauer told Deutsche Welle.

"Syria is in the diplomatically comfortable position that the West and other regional actors such as Saudi Arabia need it as a partner," he added.

The deployment also raises questions over the timing of the alleged training exercise, the destination of the Iranian vessels and the possible agenda behind Tehran's decision to literally test the waters at a time of great upheaval in such a volatile neighborhood.

Egyptian anti-Mubarak protesters shout slogans as they march in Alexandria, Egypt, Sunday, Feb. 6, 2011.
Iran favors relations with strong Islamic opposition groupsImage: dapd

"The timing is not a coincidence as it is sending a message of support to the opposition groups, saying that Iran is willing to approach anyone who may come to power in the Arab states," Gaub said."Iran is not as irrational as many people think. There is a plan here and that is to be on the side of the winners when the dust settles."

Unsurprisingly, the Iranian move has caused outrage and concern in Israel. The deployment and route of the vessels, which will pass by Israeli territorial waters on their way to Syria, has been called a "provocation" by Israel, a country whose right to exist is still denied by Iran.

Israel warns of 'provocation'

Tehran's disputed nuclear program, its support of Islamist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, and Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's continued hard-line stance against "the Zionist occupiers," has worsened the enmity between the two nations in recent years.

Any Iranian military action - however innocuous - has Israel questioning the Islamic Republic's intentions and this deployment is no exception.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks during a conference on Wednesday Oct. 26, 2005 in Tehran entitled 'The World without Zionism.'
Ahmadinejad has made no secret of his hatred for IsraelImage: AP

"I think that today, we can see what an unstable region we live in, a region in which Iran tries to exploit the situation that has been created in order to expand its influence by passing warships through the Suez Canal," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet on Sunday after first hearing of the deployment.

Israel on Tuesday urged world powers to respond "firmly" with foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor telling reporters that Iran threatened "an unprecedented military presence in the Mediterranean" and showed a new level of "defiance" that must be addressed by the international community.

"Iran has surely calculated that this move will increase pressure on Israel and raise fears of regional instability and coming at this time, has made a conscious decision to pursue the move," Elizabeth Iskander said.

"This move is potentially threatening but with Iran raising itself to the level of Israel with its alleged pursuit of an atomic bomb, and with Tehran's self-confidence soaring, threatening rhetoric is all these two sides have left," Gaub said. "It is a way of showing the other that there are no other options. It is unlikely that there will be military action between Israel and Iran."

Author: Nick Amies

Editor: Rob Mudge