As Egypt convulses, Iran slips through Suez


Iran tried this week to divert attention from the growing unrest within its cities by sending two warships through the Suez Canal for the first time in over three decades.

The Israeli Navy monitored the situation but refrained from taking action against what was described by a senior defence source as "a provocation".

The frigate Alvand, a 41-year-old warship built in Britain for the Iranian shah, is the flagship of Iran's navy and has been retrofitted in recent years with Chinese missiles, but it is not considered a match for Israel's advanced missile boats and submarines.

As thousands continued to take to the streets in Tehran and other Iranian cities, defying the regime's orders and a crackdown by the Revolutionary Guard, Israeli defence officials regarded the passage of the Alvand and the accompanying supply ship, the Kharg, as an attempt to make some political capital out of the downfall of the regime's enemy, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

The ships' destination was the port of Latakia in Syria, Iran's closest regional ally. "As we don't think the ships have any offensive intentions nor is there any intelligence regarding special weapons on board, there are no plans to take action against them as long as they steer well away from our waters," said an IDF office.

"The Navy is monitoring them as we do with any ship belonging to a
hostile nation, but there is no special alert status."

A senior official at the defence ministry in Tel Aviv said: "From a military and naval point of view, the moment the Iranian ships enter the Mediterranean, they are in a trap and we can sink them even at a range of a hundred nautical miles in a number of ways. They know that, so it's clear that they are only interested in creating a provocation and Israel should do as little as possible to rise to that."

Meanwhile in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, which joined the anti-Mubarak protests relatively late in the day, rolled out one of its biggest guns last Friday for a sermon in Al-Tahrir Square.

Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, the firebrand cleric who in the past has lauded Palestinian suicide bombers and lambasted homosexuals, praised the alliance between Muslims and Christians in the recent revolution. He also had a message for "our Palestinian brothers" - "I harbour the hope that just like Allah allowed me to witness the triumph in Egypt, he will allow me to witness the conquest of the al-Aksa mosque and will enable me to preach in the al-Aksa mosque."

Despite the anti-Israel message, a tone largely absent until now from the pro-democracy protests in Egypt, senior Israeli officials were more optimistic this week regarding the prospects in post-Mubarak Egypt. "The army have things now under control," said one leading Israeli politician, "and we have received reassurances that they are going to safeguard the peace treaty and ensure a stable transition to democracy and not allow Muslim extremists to take over."

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