In an action deemed ''grave'' by an Israel already uneasy over the ouster of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, two Iranian ships are set to traverse the canal Monday en route to Syria – an Iranian ally and Israeli enemy.
The step ratchets up tensions between the rival regional powers at a time of unprecedented turmoil in the area following revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and mass protests in Yemen, Bahrain, and Libya. And while Israeli security specialists disagree on the severity of threat the ships pose to Israel, they agree that the move is part of Iran's efforts to project its clout at a time when the regional balance of power appears to be shifting its way.
''We can see what an unstable region we live in when Iran tries to take advantage of the situation and increase its influence by sending two warships through the Suez Canal,'' said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
''Israel views this Iranian step gravely,'' he continued, adding that it underscored the need to increase the defense budget.
Israel considers Iran a formidable threat because of its nuclear program, its calls for Israel's demise, and its support for anti-Israeli militant groups such as Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The Iranian step comes as Israel is jittery over the ouster in Egypt of its strategic partner Hosni Mubarak, a de facto ally against Iran who joined in Israel's blockade of Gaza in a bid to weaken its Hamas rulers. Some Israeli analysts are predicting the eventual emergence of a regime dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo.
Iran expanding influence around Israel
An Israeli official who spoke on condition of anonymity said Mr. Netanyahu's expression of concern had to be seen in the context of expanding Iranian influence around Israel.
''In the north you've got Lebanon turning into an Iranian satellite through its proxy, Hezbollah. In the south, you've got Gaza ruled by Iran's proxy Hamas," says the official. "Now, with the naval activity, you've got an Iranian presence in the West, in the Mediterranean. It's not good news. It's clear this is a matter of concern.''
Former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens took issue with that, however, saying there was no cause for alarm over the ships.
''It's not anything serious,'' he says. ''They won't take any war-like action and if they do, the Israeli navy can take care of them.''
In the view of Ephraim Kam, deputy director of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, the Iranian move is significant. It underscores, he says, a desire ''to show their sphere of influence is not limited to the [Persian] Gulf and that they have a long arm.''
The projection of a "long arm" started with ballistic missile development and is now expressing itself in naval activity, he says.
The move is also aimed at emphasizing Iran's commitment to defend Lebanon and Syria against Israel and to tell Israel that an Iranian response would include naval units, Kam says.
According to Kam, the step is also a response to Israel sending warships through the canal in the past, including a Dolphin-class sub believed to be able to fire nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. Finally, projecting naval power is seen as a way of boosting the regime's popularity at home at a time when it is facing fresh demonstrations, Kam says.