JERUSALEM, Feb 16 (Reuters) - Two Iranian warships planned to sail through the Suez canal en route to Syria on Wednesday, Israel said, calling it a provocation by the Islamic Republic.
The Iranian naval contingent described by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman would pose no significant military threat to Israel but could spell the closest-ever encounter by the forces of the two old foes, which are geographically distant.
Oil prices surged on the news. Brent crude rose to 29-month highs, helped by Middle East jitters over clashes in Iran, Yemen and Bahrain that raised concern about disruption to oil flows.
Brent crude rose $2.40 to $104.04 at 1708 GMT.
Syria is one of Israel's neighbouring enemies. It has an alliance with Iran which has deepened along with Tehran's isolation from the West over its disputed nuclear ambitions. Tonight, two Iranian warships are meant to pass through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean Sea and reach Syria, something that has not happened in many years, Lieberman said in a speech to Jewish leaders.
To my regret, the international community is not showing readiness to deal with the recurring Iranian provocations. The international community must understand that Israel cannot forever ignore these provocations.
Israel's state-funded Channel One television said Lieberman, a far-right partner in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's conservative coalition, had spoken out of turn as the Defence Ministry had preferred to ignore the warships' approach.
Defence Minister Ehud Barak said Israel was tracking them and had alerted friendly nations in the region accordingly.
The Obama administration, trying to ride a wave of political upheaval in the Middle East, said it was aware of the Iranian warships but made no further comment.
The Suez Canal is a vital commercial and strategic waterway between Europe and the Middle East and Asia.
RIGHT OF PASSAGE
The Suez Canal does not (stop) any commercial ships from passing as long as we are not in a state of war, said Ahmed El Manakhly, a member of Egypt's Suez Canal board.
He said warships of any country need approval to pass from Egypt's defence and foreign ministries. Neither ministry had sent word as yet of an Iranian request.
Iran's semi-official Fars news agency reported on Jan. 26 that Iranian navy cadets were going on a year-long training mission into the Red Sea and through Suez to the Mediterranean.
They were training to defend the country's cargo ships and oil tankers against the threat of Somali pirates, it said.
Israel's Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper described the Iranian ships as a MK-5 frigate and a supply vessel. It said no Iranian naval vessels had passed through Suez since the Islamic Republic was established in 1979, poisoning Tehran-Cairo relations.
The ships dock at a Syrian port for a year, a senior official told the daily, adding that there was no justification for Iran to deploy warships in the Mediterranean.
A Syrian berth would put them near Lebanon, whose Hezbollah movement, an Iran ally, fought a war with Israel in 2006.
As long as they (Iranians) are not conducting some sort of belligerent operation I think they would have a right to go through the canal like any other country, said James Kraska, professor of international law at the U.S. Naval War College.
Middle East analyst Neil Partrick said he presumed Iran planned the mission before Egypt's popular uprising overthrew President Hosni Mubarak last week, but the decision not to cancel the journey, once the turmoil in the region had begun, could be a sign that Iran is prepared to risk tensions.
This might be a provocative move at a time when Egypt is moving into a period of uncertainty, he said.
Christian Le Miere of the International Institute for Strategic Studies said Iranian commercial ships regularly used Suez but he was not aware of the Iranian navy ever doing so.
That said, it's hard to see this as a credible threat to anyone. Two warships don't make a flotilla, Le Miere said.