CAIRO -- Iran's first attempt in decades to send warships through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean on Europe's -- and NATO's -- southern flank could further destabilize the Middle East, a region already reeling from an unprecedented wave of anti-government rebellions.
Egypt's new military rulers, who took power from ousted Hosni Mubarak a little more than a week ago, have granted two Iranian warships passage through the strategic waterway -- something Israel has made clear it views as a provocation. Still, Egypt appeared to have no other choice because an international convention regulating shipping says the canal must be open "to every vessel of commerce or of war."
Iranian warships have not passed through the Suez Canal since 1979.
The vessels bound for Syria are not expected to enter the canal before Tuesday or Wednesday, according to maritime sources in Egypt. On Sunday, the frigate Alvand and the supply ship Kharq were still near the southern entrance to the canal.
The canal linking the Red Sea and the Mediterranean enables ships to avoid a lengthy sail around Africa. The Iranian ships are headed for a training mission in Syria, a close ally of Iran's hardline Islamic rulers and an arch foe of Israel. In Syria, officials at the Iranian embassy said it would mark the first time in years that Iranian warships dock in a Syrian port.
Iran is suspected by the U.S. and Israel of gearing its nuclear program to develop weapons, something Tehran denies. Israel considers Iran an existential threat and is watching the warships' movements with growing alarm. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Iran on Sunday of trying to exploit recent instability in Egypt and told his Cabinet he views Iran's moves "with gravity."
The request by the Iranians to send the warships through Suez is a test of the foreign policy intentions of Egypt's new military rulers, the gatekeepers of the canal. Mubarak, an ally of Israel and the U.S. who ruled for nearly 30 years, was toppled Feb. 11 by a popular uprising and the country is now run by a military council. Mubarak was considered a bulwark in the region against Islamic extremism.
"Iran wants to say to the world, to the U.S., Israel and other countries in the Mideast that it has reach not only in areas close to it but also farther away, including in the Mediterranean," said Ephraim Kam of the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel.
He said Iran is also signaling to Israel that it is prepared to protect its allies Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon on Israel's northern and southern flanks.
A senior Iranian naval commander told an Iranian news agency already several days before the Jan. 25 start of the revolt in Egypt that Iran planned to dispatch warships to the Mediterranean, via the Suez Canal. The commander said candidly at the time that the mission was to gather intelligence on the region and train Navy cadets to protect Iranian cargo ships and oil tankers against attacks by Somali pirates.
But Iran appears to have more far-reaching objectives, including asserting itself as a regional power and testing whether Egypt's new rulers will stick to Mubarak's pro-Western line, analysts said.
Iran's influence has grown in recent years, with the political rise of its proxies Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and its close alliance with Syria. At the same time, Israel lost the friendship of Turkey and the nature of its with post-Mubarak Egypt remains uncertain.
Egyptian-Iranian ties broke down after Tehran's Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the signing of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty the same year. Later, the relationship improved slightly, with contacts currently channeled through interest sections in the two capitals.
Iran's request last week to send warships through the Suez Canal came at a particularly difficult time for Egypt, with the transition government focused on pressing domestic issues, including restoring security after the uprising.
"Iran now sees a window of opportunity to force the Egyptian government to make a stand and either tell Iranians something unpopular in Egypt (denying passage) or allow something that would be a diplomatic coup for Iran, and put the onus on Israel to make a defensive gesture," said Shashank Joshi, an analyst at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies in London.
Canal officials, citing an 1888 international convention regulating shipping, said Egypt had no choice but to permit passage to the Iranian vessels. The convention says the canal must be open "to every vessel of commerce or of war."
It was not immediately clear whether Iran had requested passage for its warships at any time since 1979, and if not, then why.
Applying the same principle, Egypt has also permitted the passage of an Israeli Dolphin-class submarine, which according to foreign reports is capable of firing nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.
In Brussels, NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said Sunday that the decision on the Iranian vessels "is up to the authorities of the Suez Canal." Diplomats at NATO said privately that the organization was in no position to object since it insists on right of free passage of naval vessels through international waters.
Israel's options appear limited, since the perceived provocation may not be enough to warrant a strong Israeli complaint.
Netanyahu did not say Sunday how Israel might respond, if at all.
Avi Dichter, Israel's former internal security minister, said Israel should be more concerned about Iran's suspected nuclear weapons ambitions -- denied by Tehran -- than about two naval ships reaching the Mediterranean.