JERUSALEM—Israel's foreign minister on Wednesday accused Iran of staging a "provocation" by sending a warship on a course to sail through the Suez Canal and past Israel's Mediterranean coast to Syria.
Israel's defense minister and U.S. officials, however, played down the significance of the plans, which Iran announced weeks ago.
The Egyptian authority that runs the canal said no Iranian ship had traversed it or sought permission to do so. Israeli defense officials said the warship, sailing with a supply ship and reportedly taking cadets to a training exercise, posed no military threat.
Israeli officials watched with deep unease last week as a popular uprising overthrew Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, depriving Israel of its only reliable ally in the Middle East. The prospect of an Iranian naval presence in the Mediterranean for the first time since Iran's Islamic Revolution of 1979 was viewed by some in Israel as a sign its adversaries, including Iran and Syria, had suddenly become emboldened.
A militarily assertive Iran would also pose a serious challenge to Saudi Arabia and other Arab regimes aligned with the U.S. Under Mr. Mubarak, Egypt had been the cornerstone of a U.S. effort to enlist moderate Arab leaders to counter the rise of Islamic militancy in the region.
Iran is sending two warships through the Suez Canal en route to Syria, Israel's foreign minister said Wednesday, calling the act a "provocation" that Israel cannot ignore. Simon Constable discusses with John Bussey, Josh Mitnick and Farnaz Fassihi.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's heated remarks on Iran mark a rupture within the Israeli leadership over how to respond to the region's political flux. Until Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had kept his cabinet officials on a more cautious message: Egypt's revolution holds security risks for Israel, but no one can predict how it will turn out.
Addressing a closed meeting of American Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, Mr. Lieberman declared that the ships were to cross the Suez within hours. He said the plan "proves that the self-confidence and chutzpah of the Iranians are growing from day to day," according to a text issued later by his office.
"To my regret, the international community is not showing readiness to deal with the recurring Iranian provocations," he added. "The international community must understand that Israel cannot forever ignore these provocations."
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His remarks Wednesday took the prime minister's aides by surprise, and Mr. Netanyahu didn't mention the Iranian ships in a later speech to the same audience.
Defense Ministry officials said they had "preferred to ignore" the ships and that Mr. Lieberman had spoken out of turn, according to Yoav Limor, military affairs correspondent of the state-funded Channel One television.
Mr. Netanyahu has spoken of Iran as a dire threat; Mr. Lieberman, a rival of the conservative prime minister in a coalition government, often uses more extreme language. The government would collapse without the support of the foreign minister's far-right party, and political analysts say that has emboldened his hawkish pronouncements.
But officials said Mr. Lieberman's message reflected a wider concern among Israeli leaders that Iran may be positioning itself to exploit Egypt's turmoil and the uncertainty of Egypt's close alliance with Israel.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley acknowledged there were Iranian ships in the Red Sea, but said the U.S. didn't know the vessels' destination or intentions. Asked if the U.S. was tracking the ships' movements, Mr. Crowley said: "We always watch what Iran is doing."
Other U.S. officials said Iran was sending the ships through the Suez to provoke a reaction from the U.S. and Israel and distract attention from the Iranian regime's problems at home. These officials said Mr. Lieberman's vociferous response was a mistake. "As long as they are behaving themselves, they can travel anywhere they want in international waters," one American official said.
Official news agencies in Iran made no mention of the Israeli remarks about the ships.
On Jan. 26, Iran's semiofficial Fars news agency reported Iranian navy cadets were boarding a frigate and a supply ship for a yearlong training mission into the Red Sea and through the Suez to the Mediterranean. They would train to defend Iran's cargo ships and oil tankers against the threat of Somali pirates, it said.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Wednesday issued a brief statement that Israel was tracking the ships and had alerted "friendly nations in the region." An Israeli official said they landed in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on Feb. 6.
The Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot quoted an unnamed Israeli official as saying the vessels would dock at a Syrian port for a year, far from the activity of pirates off the African coast.
Mr. Lieberman gave no evidence to support the ships' timing for crossing the canal. Ahmed Mankhali, director of the Transit Department for the Suez Canal Authority, said Wednesday that no Iranian warship had passed through the waterway.
"Any warship needs permission from the Egyptian Ministry of Defense," he added. "Right now we have seen no such request."
Any country that isn't in a state of war with Egypt is allowed to send warships through the canal, a commercial and strategic waterway between Europe and the Middle East and Asia.
Israel frequently sends its navy through the canal to the Red Sea on missions to intercept weapons it says Iran sends by sea to the Islamic movement Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip and two years ago fought a brief war with Israel.
Hamas and another Islamist adversary, Lebanon's Hezbollah militia, view Egypt's turmoil as an opportunity to strengthen their hand against Israel.
Hezbollah's leader told his group Wednesday he might ask it to invade northern Israel if a new war breaks out. Mr. Netanyahu retorted in a speech: "I have news for you. He won't. The last thing anyone should have is any doubt about Israel's determination to defend itself."
—Farnaz Fassihi, Charles Levinson and
Julian E. Barnes contributed
to this article.
Write to Richard Boudreaux at firstname.lastname@example.org
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