Iranian warships are headed for the Suez Canal and are expected to cross it late Wednesday night (Israel time). No Iranian vessel has passed through Suez since the Islamic Republic was established in 1979. Under Mubarak, Egypt did not allow Iranian ships through Suez. Now that Mubarak is gone, there isn't exactly anyone with the reins in Egypt who is concerned for Israel's security enough to tell Iran what to do. The free passage of Iranian ships through Suez would signify a major shift in Middle Eastern geopolitics and the first clear evidence that the new Egypt is dangerous for Israel, the region and the world.
UPDATE (9:30 Sunday Israel time): Iran claims two if its warships have already passed through the Suez Canal. The claim has yet to be confirmed by independent sources. (INN)
UPDATE (9:00 Sunday Israel time): A Suez Canal official said that the Iranian ships will arrive at the southern part of the canal later Sunday and will enter the Mediterranean on Monday morning. (JPost)
UPDATE (0:20 Sunday Israel time): A Suez official has reported that the two Iranian ships will sail from the Red Sea through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean on Monday. (Reuters)
UPDATE (21:20 Thursday Israel time): According to YNet, Egypt's Foreign Ministry has confirmed that two Iranian naval vessels have submitted a request to transit the Suez Canal. According to the Jerusalem Post, a Suez Canal official said the Defense Ministry would process the application (read: the Defense Ministry has to figure out who it currently is, whether it is more hostile to Iran or to Israel, and whether it wants a major confrontation with the World of the Free).
UPDATE (18:00 Thursday Israel time): According to INN, Iranian state television reported Thursday that the two Iranian warships are still heading for the Suez Canal. Senior Iranian official: "We are in contact with out colleagues in Cairo to insure the passage of the vessels. The Egyptian authorities said there is no bar to the passing of the ships."
UPDATE (15:00 Thursday Israel time): According to a senior canal official, the Iranian vessels have withdrew a request Thursday to pass through the Suez Canal after Israel expressed concerns over the plans. The ships are currently near the Saudi Red Sea port of Jiddah. Were the ships just a way for Iran to distract the world's attention from reports of the regime's violent suppression of democracy protests, using its favorite scapegoat, Israel?
UPDATE (22:00 Wednesday Israel time): The director of transit at the Suez Canal Authority said that the passage of any warship through the canal requires approval from the Egyptian ministry of Defense (um, does that currently exist??) and from Egyptian security officials (ditto) 48 hours in advance, and that no such request has been received nor granted, according to Al Jazeera.
More importantly, according to the Arab news network, the Suez canal official said that under current international treaties, Egypt cannot prevent passage to vessels of any country unless it is in a state of war with that country. In other words, Egypt cannot do a thing to Iran's vessels without itself provoking war.
Iran claims the ships are headed to Syria. On the way to Syria, there are 3 critical stops:
1) Crossing from the Arabian Sea to the Red Sea (Yam Suf in Israel and in the Bible, this was the sea that split for the Jewish people and drowned the Egyptians). The Red Sea runs between Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and its northern side borders Sinai.
2) Entering the Suez Canal, which connects the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea. Almost all Israeli wars have involved some struggle around Suez. It's worth googling Suez Canal on a map just to see how narrow the canal really is.
3) Entering the Mediterranean Sea, which leads to Syria. All of Israel's coastline borders the Mediterranean sea.
It is very unlikely that Israel will let Iranian ships sail in the Mediterranean, as Lieberman hinted today. However, according to Israel's treaty with Egypt, it cannot currently attack a ship in the Suez canal without breaching the treaty, since the canal borders Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Which means Israel will probably wait to attack the ships as soon as they enter the Mediterranean. Yet the sooner Israel attacks the ships, the closer they are to Egypt, where the reaction to an Israeli strike in its waters may not be a welcome act for the new regime.
Today Israeli FM Lieberman called the Iranian act a "provocation" and called for the international community to understand that "Israel will not be able to ignore these provocations forever." These comments were interpreted by many as an Israeli hint that it would retaliate, and right after Lieberman's comments went public, fears of more mideast tumult spiked oil prices worldwide. Brent crude hit a 29-month high after rising to $104.52 around noon EST.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., the Obama administration is trying to figure where the Suez Canal is and what it has to do with getting to Syria. Energy secretary Steve Chu said today: "I think we have concern. We certainly want stability in the Middle East." Read more on Atlas Shrugs on how Israel cannot save the world alone.