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Will Iranian Warships Through Suez Canal Change Balance Of Power?


Recent news that Iran will send two warships through the Suez canal to dock in Syria has set off alarm bells for Israel and the US. Defense Minister Ehud Barak walked back comments by Foreign Minister Lieberman that Israel would possibly consider a military strike against the ships.


From the moment the Egyptian people began to move against Mubarak, Iran looked for a way to capitalize on the fall of Israel’s primary Arab partner. Warships through the Suez canal would demonstrate how the balance of power was tilting in the region. There is nothing illegal about sending warships through the Suez canal. Lots of countries do it.

Iranian officials have insisted the request is in line with international regulations. They said the two vessels are headed to Syria for training. On Thursday, the two Iranian naval vessels submitted a request to transit the Suez Canal, Egypt’s Foreign Ministry said.


Ahmed al-Manakhly, a senior Suez Canal official, told AP that international agreements regulate the traffic through the canal. He said that only in the case of war with Egypt may vessels be denied transit through the waterway. Al-Manakhly noted that Iran and Egypt are not at war, and said the final decision on whether to grant the vessels’ passage lies with the Defense Ministry.

Iranian warships have not been able to pass through Egypt’s Suez Canal since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iranian state TV reported Saturday.

“This is awkward — at a minimum,” said David Schenker, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It’s destabilizing. It raises tension, particularly in this time of transition in Egypt,” Schenker said. “This is typical of Syrian-Iranian opportunism.”


Why does this change things? One obvious reason is that Iranian warships could carry weapons to Syria, Lebanon or even Hizbullah.

Israel has been successful in blocking Syria from upgrading its military capability. The US and Europe stop merchant ships headed for Syria that may carry weapons from Iran or North Korea. How can they do this? They claim it is legal within the framework of the UN embargo on Iran meant to block its nuclear program. According to the US, ships traveling from Iran can be stopped and searched for arms.

For several months in 2009, Cyprus held the Russian-owned, Cypriot-flagged Monchegorsk off the southern port of Limassol. The U.S. and other European members of the council said the shipment violated Security Council resolutions and was, according to Haaretz, “traveling to Syria from Iran with weapons destined for Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia or the Palestinian group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.” U.S. and U.K. envoys said the weapons shipment violated the UN arms embargo on Iran. Iran said it did not.

Syria’s ambassador to the UN at the time argued that:

“Raising the issue of this shipment is part of an orchestrated campaign to exert pressure on us to get political concessions,” Ja’afari said in the interview. “We are saying that the Security Council has had all kinds of indications of Israeli violations of international law and has never held them accountable. It is a double standard. … Ja’Afari said Syria and other Arab nations have the right to obtain weapons to defend against “Israeli invasions and aggressions.” ”

If Iran were able to send war ships to Syria, Britain and the US would have to think twice before stopping them; although, they could be easily sunk by Israeli planes.

The US guarantees Israel’s QME or Qualitative Military Edge.  In 2008, this longstanding policy was written into law and has since become the cornerstone of the U.S.-Israeli security relationship. It is defined as a guarantee to ensure:

“Israel’s ability to counter and defeat any military threat from any state, coalition of states, or non-state actors, while itself sustaining minimal casualties or damage.”

By guaranteeing Israel’s military hegemony in the region, the US has opened the way for Israel to expand its borders over the land it conquered in 1967, rather than trade it for peace. That is why Israel ‘deeply appreciates’ the U.S. veto on UN resolution condemning settlements of yesterday. As America’s ambassador to the UN, Susan E. Rice, said after her veto of the UN resolution:

“The United States has not characterized settlement activity as illegal since, 1980. And – but what we do believe firmly and have reiterated forcefully, including today, is that continued settlement activity is not legitimate.”

Realists argue that only by bringing the balance of power in the region back into equilibrium will peace be encouraged. This logic suggests that if Iran is able upgrade Syrian and Palestinian arms, peace may become more likely. Only by creating a balance of power in the region will Israel compromise rather than expand.

Syria Comment - Joshua Landis

Joshua Landis maintains Syria Comment and teaches modern Middle Eastern history and politics and writes on Syria and its surrounding countries. He writes “Syria Comment,” a daily newsletter on Syrian politics that attracts some 3,000 readers a day. It is widely read by officials in Washington, Europe and Syria. Dr. Landis regularly travels to Washington DC to consult with the State Department and other government agencies. He is a frequent analyst on TV and radio.

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