Iran is sending two warships through Egypt’s Suez Canal for the first time since Iran’s 1979 revolution. The two ships, a frigate and a military supply ship, are reportedly bound for Syria. The new Egyptian government gave its official permission for the passage despite the fact that Iran and Egypt have had tense relations for many years.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called the deployment of the ships through the canal “a provocation that proves that the Iranians’ self-confidence and audacity grows every day.” Israel is understandably concerned that the Iranian vessels could pose a direct threat to Israel and may be transporting military supplies to Hezbollah forces in Lebanon, transshipped through Syria.
Egypt has sovereignty over the canal and is bound by the Constantinople Convention of 1888, which guaranteed that the canal “shall always be free and open, in time of war as in time of peace, to every vessel of commerce or of war, without distinction of flag.” Despite this guarantee, Egypt had barred Israeli ships from using the canal until the signing of the 1978 Camp David accords, citing Article 10 of the treaty, which allowed measures for “the defense of Egypt and the maintenance of public order.”
By allowing the Iranian ships to transit the canal, Cairo is complying with its international legal obligations, although some may argue that it could have used Article 10 to deny the ships passage, given Iran’s past hostility to Egypt and its support for anti-Egyptian terrorist groups. The chief beneficiary of the decision is Iran’s embattled Mahmoud Ahmadinejad regime, which will undoubtedly trumpet the naval deployment as a symbol of Iran’s rising military power and regional influence.