What does it really mean that Iran sent ships through the Suez Canal?

A missile-armed Iranian frigate and a supply ship passed through the Suez Canal today in what Israeli leaders have described as a "provocation" and an effort by Tehran to exploit recent instability in the Middle East "in order to expand its influence." The ships, which will travel along the Israeli coast on their way to ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

A missile-armed Iranian frigate and a supply ship passed through the Suez Canal today in what Israeli leaders have described as a "provocation" and an effort by Tehran to exploit recent instability in the Middle East "in order to expand its influence." The ships, which will travel along the Israeli coast on their way to a training exercise with Syrian forces, are the first Iranian naval vessels to cross the waterway since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. 

There's been some speculation over whether former President Hosni Mubarak would have allowed the ships through or whether the United States would put pressure on the new Egyptian government to deny the Iranians' passage, but the truth is that the Egyptians didn't have all that much choice in the matter. Use of the canal is still governed by the 1888 Convention of Constantinople, which clearly states that it "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." As long as the Iranian navy ponied up the $290,000 entry fee, it has as much right to the canal as any other country.

Iranian operations in the Mediterranean have been limited in the past, not by Egypt's control of the canal but by Iran's own minimal offshore naval capabilities. I spoke with Commander James Kraska, chair of operational law at the U.S. Naval War College, about the strategic implications -- such as they are -- of Iran's move: 

A missile-armed Iranian frigate and a supply ship passed through the Suez Canal today in what Israeli leaders have described as a "provocation" and an effort by Tehran to exploit recent instability in the Middle East "in order to expand its influence." The ships, which will travel along the Israeli coast on their way to a training exercise with Syrian forces, are the first Iranian naval vessels to cross the waterway since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. 

There’s been some speculation over whether former President Hosni Mubarak would have allowed the ships through or whether the United States would put pressure on the new Egyptian government to deny the Iranians’ passage, but the truth is that the Egyptians didn’t have all that much choice in the matter. Use of the canal is still governed by the 1888 Convention of Constantinople, which clearly states that it "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." As long as the Iranian navy ponied up the $290,000 entry fee, it has as much right to the canal as any other country.

Iranian operations in the Mediterranean have been limited in the past, not by Egypt’s control of the canal but by Iran’s own minimal offshore naval capabilities. I spoke with Commander James Kraska, chair of operational law at the U.S. Naval War College, about the strategic implications — such as they are — of Iran’s move: 

This is one warship and a supply vessel. Quite frankly, it won’t change the strategic picture a whole lot. It’s certainly one more thing to keep track of. Iran has meddled in Lebanon in the past, and I can see where it’s a concern. But I just don’t see where [Israel] coming out ahead and publicly trying to make the international community focus on this and putting pressure on Egypt to deny them passage was really effective.

Iran is mostly limited by its capability. It’s very hard to do out-of-area operations. This is analogous to China sending ships to do anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden or Russian warships in Venezuela. It’s a show-the-flag sort of thing. It’s not as though Iranian ships can now operate routinely or comfortably away from their home base.

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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