CAIRO — Two Iranian naval vessels traveled through the Suez Canal on Tuesday en route to Syria, officials said, the first time in three decades that Tehran has sent military ships through the strategic waterway.
Canal officials said the ships — a frigate and a supply vessel — had reached the Mediterranean Sea by about 4 p.m. local time.
Iran appears to be testing the state of affairs in the Middle East after the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. A longstanding peace treaty with Egypt is crucial to Israel's regional security.
The voyage took the frigate Alvand and the supply Kharq close to NATO's southern flank and could further destabilize the Middle East, a region already reeling from an unprecedented wave of anti-government rebellions
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Israel saw the passage as a provocation. Israeli officials refused to comment Tuesday, though earlier this week Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he viewed the move "with gravity."
In Tehran, the deputy commander of the Iranian navy said that Iran has "suprised the Zionist regime" with the journey to the Mediterranean.
"The world arrogance (U.S.) should know that the army of the Islamic Republic is fully prepared to defend the holy ideals of the Islamic Republic and this readiness grows day by day," Brigadier-General Abdolrahim Mousavi told the official Iranian news agency IRNA.
In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley refused to say whether the transit in and of itself, or the Egyptian decision to allow it, were provocations.
"We will be watching carefully to see where these ships go and the implications of that," he said.
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 hard-line 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 naval vessels dock in a Syrian port.
The ships paid about $300,000 in fees for the passage, according to a Maritime agent. The officials all spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
Iran's request to send the warships through the Suez Canal came at a particularly difficult time for Egypt as the nation's new military rulers try to focus on pressing domestic issues, including restoring security after the uprising that ousted longtime leader Hosni Mubarak.
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The military rulers apparently had no choice but to grant the ships passage because an international convention regulating shipping says the canal must be open "to every vessel of commerce or of war." Egypt also cannot search naval ships passing through the waterway.
Iranian warships have not passed through the Suez Canal since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Egyptian-Iranian ties broke down following the Islamic Revolution and the signing of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty the same year. Later, the relationship improved slightly, with contacts currently channeled through interest sections in the two capitals.
Separately, Israel announced on Tuesday that its Arrow II missile shield had aced its latest live trial, shooting down a target missile off a U.S. military base on the California coast.
Israeli defense official Arieh Herzog said the test marked Arrow's upgrade "to contend with new and additional threats" in the Middle East.
"Arrow can intercept all of the weapons arrayed against it in the region, including those that are liable to come from Iran," Herzog told reporters.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.