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

By , Staff writer

(Updated after original posting)

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.

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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.

What's going on here? If I had to guess, posturing – and a testing of the new political order in the Middle East.

The Iranian regime has sought to claim the uprising in Egypt was inspired by its own 1979 Islamic Revolution, even as members of the Iranian ruling elite called for the leaders of their own democracy movement to be executed.

Both Egypt's Sunni Muslim Brotherhood and secular pro-democracy forces have dismissed Iran's claims about the influence of its own 32-year-old revolution as absurd. But there's little doubt that Iranian leaders would welcome an anti-US, Islamic government in Egypt. And it wouldn't be surprising if Iranian leaders are trying to gauge whether Egypt's uprising marks a new shift in that direction by "road-testing" the Egyptian public's reaction to its announcement that it wants its ships to use the Canal.

It's unlikely, though, that Iran could make its transit of the Suez a political issue in Egypt now. Egypt's democracy activists, trying to secure real democratic change after Mubarak's fall, are too focused on domestic concerns.

Then there is Israel.

Israel is clearly concerned that a new Egypt could emerge that tilts more towards the Palestinians, and must be particularly concerned about the Egyptian border with Gaza, which is currently controlled by Hamas, an ideological cousin of the Brotherhood, though a very different sort of movement. Hezbollah remains strong in Lebanon's south and Syria remains hostile to its interests.

In sounding the alarm over Iran's potential Canal transit, the hawkish Mr. Lieberman may have wanted to hear early indications that Egypt's military junta would be sticking to Mubarak's policy on the issue.

Lieberman has in the past made clear his willingness to act quickly and decisively against Egypt when he thinks Israel's security interests are threatened.

In 2001, he suggested Israel bomb Egypt's Aswan Dam (which would kill thousands and cripple the economy here) if Egypt crossed a "red line" by stationing more troops on the Sinai Peninsula.

But Lieberman was clearly alarmed by fall of Mubarak. Last week, according to the Israeli daily Haaretz, he asked Israeli embassies to express support for the regime.

Now Mubarak is gone.

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