CAIRO – Egypt has agreed to allow two Iranian naval vessels to transit the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean, a military official said Friday, ending several days of confusion over their planned passage, which Israel's foreign minister has labeled a provocation.
An Iranian diplomat has said the vessels were heading to Syria for training and that the request to move through the canal is in line with international regulations.
It would be the first time since Iran's clerical rulers came to power in the 1979 Islamic Revolution that naval vessels from the country have passed through the canal to the Mediterranean.
The movement of Iranian naval ships past Israeli shores is of concern there because Israel considers Iran an existential threat. Those fears stem from Iran's disputed nuclear program, ballistic missile development, support for militants in the region and its threats to destroy Israel.
The White House said the U.S. was also closely monitoring the progress of the ships, now in the Red Sea. Their passage comes as the region is being swept by anti-government unrest, including the protests that toppled Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak a week ago and left the military in charge of the country.
It was not clear exactly when they would pass the canal, which was already closed for the day when the approval was announced on state media.
The vessels, a frigate and a supply ship, received the approval after routine procedures to check there was nothing illegal on board, said an Egyptian military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue with the media.
The approval had been expected. Canal officials say that under international agreements regulating traffic through the waterway, Egypt can only deny transit in case of war or if the ships do not meet safety requirements.
Still, contradictory statements earlier in the week on whether Egypt was considering the request for passage appeared to signal that Egypt's military rulers might be grappling with their first diplomatic dilemma.
Egypt is also wary of Iran's growing influence in the Middle East and has not had diplomatic relations with the country since the 1979 revolution.
An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman refused to comment on Friday's announcement. On Wednesday, Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman had called the plan "a provocation that proves that Iranian audacity and insolence are increasing."
"We also would say that Iran does not have a great track record of responsible behavior in the region. It's always a concern to us," Carney said.
Syria's official news agency carried a statement Thursday from Iran's ambassador to Syria saying the two ships planned to travel there for training and that the visit would be "carried out according to international laws and norms."
U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said he was "highly skeptical" of that explanation.
"If the ships move through the canal, we will evaluate what they actually do. It's not really about the ships. It's about what the ships are carrying, what's their destination, what's the cargo on board, where's it going, to whom and for what benefit," Crowley told a news conference.
He said the U.S. has "ongoing concerns about Iranian weapons being supplied to bad actors in the region."
Commercial vessels intending to transit the Suez Canal, which links the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, must give the waterway's authority at least 24-hour notice before entering the canal.
On Friday evening, Ahmed al-Manakhly, a senior Suez Canal official in the operation room, said he had not yet received the approval for the ships' passage from Egyptian defense officials. "It is not for me to deny or approve. Once I get an approval, I carry it out," he said.
Al-Manakhly said the waterway was closed to traffic for the day.
He said he could not recall any Iranian naval vessel ever transiting the canal.
He identified the two vessels as the Alvand, a frigate, and the Kharq, a supply ship.
Associated Press writers Julie Pace and Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.