JERUSALEM – Israel's prime minister on Sunday accused Iran of trying to exploit the recent instability in Egypt by sending two warships through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean, saying he views the move "with gravity."
The Iranian ships were expected to make a rare crossing through the canal on Sunday or Monday en route to Syria — an Iranian ally and Israel's enemy to the north. Egypt confirmed the ships would be allowed through the strategic passage.
"Israel views this Iranian step with gravity," Benjamin Netanyahu told the weekly meeting of his Cabinet. He did not suggest there would be an Israeli response. The ships would not enter Israeli territorial waters.
Protests in Egypt toppled the country's autocratic ruler, Hosni Mubarak, on Feb. 11 and Egypt is currently being run by the military. Israel has expressed concern that Islamic groups could increase their clout in Egypt and harm the three-decade-old peace agreement between the two countries.
Egypt, a longtime U.S. ally, has been at odds with Iran for decades, and Israel fears a weakening of Egypt could give Iran room to increase its reach. The Gaza Strip, sandwiched between Israel and Egypt, is ruled by the Iranian-backed Hamas militant group.
"I think we see today what kind of unstable area we live in — an area where Iran is trying to exploit the situation that's been created to try to expand its influence by sending two warships through the Suez Canal," Netanyahu said.
Last week, Suez Canal officials identified the two Iranian vessels as the Alvand, a frigate, and the Kharq, a supply ship. Canal authorities can deny passage only if they decide ships pose a safety risk.
Israeli warships have traversed the canal in the past, and in at least one case, an Israeli Dolphin-class submarine also passed through in what appeared to be a message to Iran. Some foreign media reports say that Dolphins can fire nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.
Israel considers Iran an existential threat because of its nuclear program, calls for Israel's destruction and support for Hamas and Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon along Israel's northern border.
Israel, the U.S. and other countries have pressed for international sanctions to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons, but both Israel and the U.S. have not ruled out a military strike if sanctions fail.
Iran says its nuclear program aims only to produce electricity.