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Iran warships through the Suez Canal? Messaging, opportunism, and fearmongering.

By Staff writer / February 17, 2011


(Updated after original posting)

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Staff writer

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Is Iran really planning to run two aging warships through the Suez Canal, as was widely reported over the past few days?

Open source indicators are that the answer to that question is "no." But the flurry of reporting on the issue points to the regional agendas of both Israel, Iran, and Egypt as they respond to the stunning events of the past week.

The story began with controversial Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who told a meeting with US Jewish leaders in Jerusalem on Wednesday that the Iranian ships would head through the Egyptian controlled canal that evening. "Tonight, two Iranian warships are meant to pass through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean Sea and reach Syria, something that has not happened in many years," he alleged, though he didn't explain the source of his information.

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The remarks were immediately picked up by news agencies around the world, and sent oil prices surging (something of a boon to the Iranian economy, currently struggling under heavy international sanctions).

If Egypt's Suez Canal Authority is to be believed, there was no chance that Iranian ships would pass through the Canal Wednesday night. The Authority said the movement of foreign warships through the Suez Canal – which links the Red Sea with the Mediterranean – must be requested 48 hours in advance, and no such request had been made by Iran. Free passage is frequently granted to US, Israeli, and other warships through the Canal, but Iran has not passed through in more than 30 years.

But then on Thursday, state media in Iran first said warships were indeed scheduled to pass through the Canal, but that the plan had been canceled. Then in the late evening, Iran's government-owned Press TV said the plan was still on. About an hour before that claim on Press TV, an Egyptian Canal official had told Reuters they still hadn't received a request from Iran for passage.

UPDATE: In the later evening in Cairo, an Egyptian official told the Associated Press that a request from Iran had been received and that the ultimate decision rests now with the Egyptian Defense Ministry. The AP reports, citing a canal official, that theoretically safe passage is guaranteed to all seaworthy vessels that aren't from country's at war with Egypt.


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