Iran hails warships' mission in Mediterranean

Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 22, 2011; 11:13 PM

CAIRO - Iranian officials on Tuesday hailed the passage of two warships through Egypt's Suez Canal as a milestone in Iran's effort to play a greater role in maritime affairs.

Israeli officials called it a worrisome provocation at a time of upheaval and deepening tension in the Middle East.

The Alvand frigate, one of the oldest vessels in the Iranian navy's five-ship fleet, became the first Iranian warship to sail into the Mediterranean since the 1979 Islamic revolution. The frigate, built in 1968 and in dire need of repairs, is en route to the Syrian port of Latakia for a training mission and is accompanied by a supply ship.

The Iranian navy last year deployed its newest destroyer, the Jamaran, to fight Somali pirates operating in the Arabian Sea. Another recent mission took the destroyer to Sri Lanka.

Brig. Gen. Abdolrahim Mousavi, the deputy commander of Iran's military, was quoted by the country's official Islamic Republic News Agency as saying that the Suez transit had succeeded "by the grace of God" and describing Israeli officials' concerns as "negative propaganda."

"The global arrogance should know that the Islamic Republic is fully prepared to defend the divine ideas of the Islamic Republic system, and this readiness is becoming stronger day by day," the general said, according to the news agency.

Iranian officials did not provide details about the ships' mission.

Israel's vice prime minister, Silvan Shalom, said the timing of the crossing was an unmistakable message from Iran that it is attempting to expand its influence in the region.

"The objective of the Iranian provocation is to signal to the leaders of the Arab world who the new leader is in the Middle East," Shalom said.

Shalom's remarks were the latest in a string of condemnations by Israeli officials, who have been monitoring the ships' movements.

Israel and the United States have accused Iran and Syria of providing support to Hezbollah, a Lebanese militant group that fought a war with Israel in 2006.

Israeli warships have traversed the Suez Canal for missions in the Red Sea. In July 2009, Israeli defense officials revealed that a submarine had moved through the canal the previous month as part of a naval drill. The disclosure was seen as a warning to Iran. The vessel was one of Israel's three Dolphin-class submarines, which can carry nuclear warheads.

The U.S. Navy sends roughly a dozen ships through the Suez Canal each month, according to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service.

The Iranian crossing made little news in Egypt, which generally does not restrict the passage of military ships through the canal, as long as nations file the required paperwork and pay tariffs.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the United States was monitoring the mission because of long-standing concerns about Iran's "behavior in the region." He added, however, that the United States has long supported freedom of navigation.

Erdbrink reported from Tehran. Special correspondent Joel Greenberg in Jerusalem and correspondent Kathy Lally in Cairo contributed to this report.

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