Iranian Warships in the Mediterranean: Testing US Waters

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Iranian supply ship "Kharq" sent by Tehran to the Mediterranean to help "train the Syrian navy", enters the Suez Canal early on 21 February 2012, on its way back to Iran. (Photo: AFP - STR)

By: Elie Chalhoub

Published Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Tehran announced that Iranian warships had entered the Mediterranean on Saturday via the Suez Canal and sailed to the coast of Syria.

The United States was quick to issue a warning against this move, calling on Tehran to respect international laws and not do anything that would endanger the security of the region.

Tel Aviv for its part said it will follow closely the movement of the ships to verify that they will not come close to the coast of Israel.

This is the second time since the victory of the Islamic Revolution in 1979 that Iran has sent warships to the Mediterranean. The first time was in February 2011 after the overthrow of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

An informed Iranian government source said that “this time is different from the previous one when the warships sailed to Syria to demonstrate solidarity. Sending the warships today is a challenge to the United States, the West, and reactionary Arab forces represented by Saudi Arabia, only days after the Arab League’s decision in Cairo to support the Syrian opposition politically, financially, and with arms.”

The source added, “This is a challenge of a different kind. By taking this step, Iran is establishing itself as a naval power outside its territorial boundaries and announcing that its strategic range includes Bahrain, the Red Sea, and the Mediterranean.”

The source continued by noting that “for the first time, Iran has become an integral part of a new equation in the Mediterranean even though it is not a Mediterranean country. It is a strategic shift that reshuffles regional and international cards and worries the United States.”

The source also said,“The US wanted to confine Iran to the Gulf area and limit its role to the Strait of Hormuz, striking a balance between the two countries. However, Iran today has come out of the bottle and imposed its footprint beyond Hormuz.”

The Iranian navy vessels reached the Syrian coast just as the Russian ones were leaving. This, according to the same source, “reflects an Iranian desire to keep the Syrian coast protected and sends a message to all concerned parties that the Syrian question is today an Iranian concern par excellence.”

During his most recent visit to Iran, the Syrian grand mufti, Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, met the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, and handed him a written letter from Syrian president Bashar Assad.

Source privy to the meeting say that Khamenei “asked Hassoun to convey his greetings to Assad and inform him of his unwavering readiness to stand firmly by him, emphasizing Iran’s unlimited support for Damascus on all levels because Syria’s collapse means the collapse of the entire region, something that no sane person will allow.”

The source adds, “The supreme leader talked about surprises during this meeting. Perhaps the Iranian warships were part of the surprise.”

The source also affirmed that “communications between the two countries is [maintained] daily and mostly involves the [Iranian] Foreign Ministers Ali Akbar Salehi and Walid al-Muallem.”

The source emphasized, “Iran is working hard for an internal Syrian solution based on dialogue and national reconciliation in the context of Assad’s reforms and against international intervention.”

The source added, “Iranian efforts have the support of the Syrian regime, even if Tehran hosts a meeting between the Syrian authorities and the opposition, with the exception of the Syrian National Council, which declined such an invitation.”

Two weeks ago, Iranian authorities cancelled the customs imposed on Syrian goods and a few days ago it concluded an agreement with Damascus, Baghdad, and Beirut to provide them with electricity after it constructs a power plant in Syria.

When asked what would have happened if Egyptian authorities prevented the Iranian vessels from passing through the Suez Canal, an Iranian source said: “That would be unlikely because the atmosphere in Egypt towards Iran is very positive irrespective of what appears on the surface.”

The source explained, “All the parties in Egypt that have political weight and all the serious presidential candidates emphasize good relations with Iran as a friendly state and a regional power.”

The source added, “The Suez Canal is an international channel passing through Egypt, and Egypt cannot prevent anyone from passing unless they represent a threat to its national security. Preventing Iranian vessels from passing would have amounted to an international precedent that could be applied to the Strait of Hormuz.”

Istanbul Talks

News of Iranian warships in the Mediterranean has received a great deal of attention in light of the upcoming meeting between Iran and the P5-plus-one group (US, Britain, France, Russia, and China plus Germany), according to Salehi’s announcement yesterday.

The parties are waiting for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton to determine the date of the meeting in agreement with the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Saeed Jalili.

A source close to the negotiations confirms that “the Western agenda should be different in this round of talks because the Iranian agenda has changed,” explaining that the Iranians “want to discuss regional and international energy security and will not discuss their nuclear program except to provide assurances that it is peaceful and not military.”

To sum up, according to the same source, “in this round of talks, Iranians want to discuss all the issues in the region from Palestine to Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Bahrain, the Arab revolutions, and other sensitive subjects, which would tilt the scale against US interests.”

In the letter Jalili sent to the Europeans regarding talks, Tehran suggested that the agenda revolve around the slogan “peaceful nuclear energy for all and no nuclear weapons for anyone.”

This demonstrates that Iran is the one calling for a new round of talks within the framework of the P5-plus-one group, completely ignoring an invitation issued weeks ago by Ashton.

Perhaps that is what led the US to say that “Jalili’s letter is ambiguous and vague.”

Whatever the case, the Iranian response came after a series of important developments:

1 - Jalili aid Ali Bagheri’s shuttle diplomacy took him to Russia and China where he announced reaching “strategic agreements,” which means “the Iranian nuclear program is now part of a global battle whereby China and Russia will stand by Iran,” according to informed sources.

2 - Iran announced that it has manufactured a smoother, faster, and a more effective type of centrifuge, and has installed 3,000 units of it in the Natanz facility.

The Fordow facility near Qom has been reactivated and nuclear bars, each containing two sheets that carry uranium enriched to 20 percent, are now in the Amirabad research reactor in Tehran. Agreeing to a round of talks at this point means accepting all these developments.

Israeli newspaper, Yediot Ahronot, quoted Western diplomats working at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna as saying that the Fordow facility is almost completely ready and that it represents a “significant leap” in terms of the Iranian nuclear program.

There is currently talk in Iran about a nuclear surprise that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is going to announce soon, most probably on the eve of the Istanbul talks or perhaps on the same day.

Some expect Iran to announce that it has become an exporter of nuclear fuel, which would make it the fourth such state after the US, Russia, and France.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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