The passage of two Iranian naval ships through the Suez Canal has been put back to Wednesday, a canal official said late Sunday as Israel expressed its grave concern about the Mediterranean-bound vessels.
"The shipping agent handling the two Iranian warships has told the canal administration to push back their passage by two days," the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
He did not elaborate on the reasons for the delay, but confirmed that the new day of passage through the waterway that links the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea would be Wednesday.
Reportedly bound for Syria on a journey that would necessarily involve passing Israel, the patrol frigate Alvand and support ship Kharg would be the first Iranian warship to pass through the Suez Canal since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Officials at the Egyptian-run canal had previously said privately that they expected the two ships to pass on Monday, just days after the U.S. aircraft carrier Enterprise steamed through Suez in the opposite direction.
In the wake of president Hosni Mubarak's stepping down on Feb. 11, Egypt gave its green light on Friday for the Iranian warships to transit the canal into the Mediterranean.
Egypt's official MENA news agency has reported that the request for the ships to transit the Suez Canal said they were not carrying weapons or nuclear and chemical materials.
Canal officials, citing an 1888 international convention regulating shipping, said Egypt had no choice but to permit passage to the Iranian vessels. The convention says the canal must be open "to every vessel of commerce or of war."
Applying the same principle, Egypt has also permitted the passage of an Israeli Dolphin-class submarine, which according to foreign reports is capable of firing nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.
The 1,500-ton Alvand is normally armed with torpedoes and anti-ship missiles, while the larger 33,000-tonne Kharg has a crew of 250 and facilities for up to three helicopters, Iran's official Fars news agency has said.
Both ships were built in Britain during the 1970s for Iran, which ordered them before the Islamic revolution.
The canal linking the Red Sea and the Mediterranean enables ships to avoid a lengthy sail around Africa. The Iranian ships are headed for a training mission in Syria, a close ally of Iran's hardline Islamic rulers and an arch foe of Israel. In Syria, officials at the Iranian embassy said it would mark the first time in years that Iranian warships dock in a Syrian port.
Iran is suspected by the U.S. and Israel of gearing its nuclear program to develop weapons, something Tehran denies. Israel considers Iran an existential threat and is watching the warships' movements with growing alarm. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Iran on Sunday of trying to exploit recent instability in Egypt and told his Cabinet he views Iran's moves "with gravity."
Iranian power play
Netanyahu denounced the ships' arrival in the region as an Iranian power play.
"Today we are witnessing the instability of the region in which we live and in which Iran is trying to profit by extending its influence by dispatching two warships to cross the Suez Canal," he said.
"Israel views with gravity this Iranian initiative and other developments that reinforce what we have said in past years about the Israel's security needs," he added, according to a statement from his office.
The request by the Iranians to send the warships through Suez is a test of the foreign policy intentions of Egypt's new military rulers, the gatekeepers of the canal. Mubarak was considered a bulwark in the region against Islamic extremism.
"Iran wants to say to the world, to the U.S., Israel and other countries in the Mideast that it has reach not only in areas close to it but also farther away, including in the Mediterranean," said Ephraim Kam of the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel.
He said Iran is also signaling to Israel that it is prepared to protect its allies Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon on Israel's northern and southern flanks.
Netanyahu did not say Sunday how Israel might respond, if at all.
Avi Dichter, Israel's former internal security minister, said Israel should be more concerned about Iran's suspected nuclear weapons ambitions - denied by Tehran - than about two naval ships reaching the Mediterranean.
Earlier this week, Israel Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called the move a "provocation."
But an Iranian diplomat said: "This will be a routine visit, within international law, in line with the cooperation between Iran and Syria, who have strategic ties."
"The ships will spend a few days in Syrian ports for training purposes," having already visited several countries including Oman and Saudi Arabia," the diplomat added.