As the Mideast Boils, Iran Stirs the Pot with Ships to the Suez

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Majid Jamshidi / AFP / Getty Images

The Iranian warship Alvand in the Gulf on Feb. 21

Uprisings across the Arab world. Bearings askew. Sands shifting like nobody's business. And into this disorienting world of new uncertainties, the Islamic Republic of Iran sends a pair of warships toward the Suez Canal, bless its heart. It's the diplomatic equivalent of comfort food, like coming across mashed potatoes and green beans on a table where you don't recognize any of the other foods.

The vocabulary is familiar too. Throughout the Cold War, the Sixth Fleet steamed toward the Suez to signal U.S. concern about something on the far side of it and, of course, in the process, raised tensions that rose further still when Soviet warships made some countermove on the global chessboard. But if the Iranian cruiser Kharg and the frigate Alvand leave the Red Sea early on Tuesday, Feb. 22, and nose in the direction of the Mediterranean as scheduled (officials who spoke on condition of anonymity have said they entered the canal early Tuesday morning), the significance will be in the passage itself. No Iranian military vessel has traveled the Suez since 1979, the year Iran's Shah was dispatched by the kind of mass demonstrations now threatening autocrats from Morocco to Bahrain.

"Iran is trying to take advantage of the situation that has arisen and broaden its influence by transferring two warships via the Suez Canal," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his Cabinet on Sunday. "Israel takes a dim view of this Iranian step." The Prime Minister threatened no military move in response except to cite the provocation as a reason to hike defense spending.

It might be mere coincidence that the Kharg and Alvand showed up only after Hosni Mubarak stepped down as Egypt's President. "I assumed it was planned before this," says Ephraim Kam, deputy director of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. Kam sees the passage as an Iranian effort to project strength outside the Persian Gulf; to signal overt support for Hizballah and Syria, the ships' announced destination; and finally, to answer Israel, which has sent missile boats through the canal as recently as a year ago and once even sent a submarine. In the Cold War of the modern Middle East, after all, the poles are Jerusalem and Tehran.

Yet in this Cold War, Mubarak's Egypt was on the same side as Israel. The deposed President loathed Iran and almost certainly wouldn't have allowed Iran to send ships through the Suez, as Egypt's new military leaders have done despite Israel's pleas. "Beware of Egypt's wrath," Mubarak publicly warned in 2009 after state media announced the arrests of 49 people Egypt said were agents of Hizballah. An Israeli intelligence source said the captured operatives had "built a very big infrastructure" in Egypt that included apartments and speedboats on, yes, the Suez. The source said Egyptian security services captured "at least two high-level Hizballah operatives" carrying false passports.

The perceived threat from Iran, which Mubarak said seeks to "drag the region into the abyss," stirred Egyptian intelligence to work more closely with Israel, tipping off its counterparts to plots against Israeli and U.S. targets in the Sinai peninsula in one recent instance. Egyptian spymaster Omar Suleiman, who in the final days of Mubarak's reign became his first Vice President, was a regular visitor to Tel Aviv.

"I knew him," says Ilan Mizrahi, a former deputy head of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad who also served as national security adviser under Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Mizrahi says Egypt's course after Mubarak will depend first on the army he left in charge but notes that in the larger picture, President Obama may have helped Iran by so publicly "deserting" Mubarak when the masses swelled against him. "If you're going to kill someone, kill him softly, like the song," Mizrahi says. Iran's determined effort to acquire nuclear capabilities, he says, already had its neighbors mulling where to place their bet: "Iran, which is very close? Or Washington, which is very, very far?"

"Oman and Qatar are already much friendlier to Iran than they were in the past," Mizrahi says, naming two states that face Iran across the Persian Gulf. It's not the kind of thing noticed except by students of Mideast power politics, but Palestinian leaders on the West Bank — who do not get along at all with Iran — blamed Qatar for the effort to embarrass Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in January with leaked documents from the authority's negotiations with Israel. The leak was trumpeted by al-Jazeera, the satellite news channel owned by Qatar's emir.

None of which means Iran is poised to emerge somehow triumphant when the dust settles from the popular revolts in, to name a few sites, Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, Morocco and Jordan. The Islamic Republic had its own revolt a year ago, after the stolen presidential election incited the uprising known as the green movement. It was put down violently then but in recent days has risen again, energized not only by the Arab revolts but possibly also by the historical Persian rivalry with — in fact, feeling of superiority over — Arabs. In that respect, Iranians might not want to be left behind.

"I think without Mubarak, the anti-Iran front in the Middle East is weakened," Mizrahi says. "But I think Tehran is nervous. Before the revolutions, they were nervous because the sanctions are working. And now they are losing legitimacy."