Iran has submitted an official request to move two of its armed warships through the Suez Canal, an Egyptian official confirmed to CNN Thursday.
Ahmed El-Manakhly, the transit director of the Suez Canal, announced earlier Thursday that no such request had been made, but Iranian state-run television confirmed that the two warships were en route, making their way from the Red Sea into the Mediterranean.
The move puts Egypt's post-Mubarak military regime in a testy situation with neighbor Israel. If approved, it would mark the first time Iranian military ships sailed through the Suez Canal since the Islamic republic's 1979 revolution.
The Egyptian official told CNN that permission will likely be granted. But Egypt might find itself in muddy water over the Suez.
The canal is an internal body of water and as such, Egypt has sovereignty over it. But Egypt also is bound by the 1976 Camp David Accords, which guaranteed the right of free passage by ships belonging to Israel and all other nations on the basis of the Constantinople Convention of 1888. Before that, Egypt did not allow Israeli ships to sail through the canal.
Last week, Egypt's military government said it would honor all its international treaties. That would include Camp David.
Now it finds itself in the position of allowing ships belonging to the sworn enemy of their peace treaty partner to sail through. "This is awkward -- at a minimum," said David Schenker, director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Schenker said the Iranian want a frigate -- the Alvand -- and a military supply ship -- the Kharg -- to cross into the Mediterranean. Both are armed with missiles, he said. Their passage would create more uncertainty in the region. "It's destabilizing. It raises tension, particularly in this time of transition in Egypt," Schenker said. "This is typical of Syrian-Iranian opportunism."
The Obama administration could pressure Egypt's military regime to keep Iran at bay, but will they? One thing is for certain: how Egypt's new military regime responds will offer a glimpse to how it will treat existing treaties with both the United States and Israel.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said the two Iranian military vessels had been expected to sail Wednesday night through the Suez on their way to Syria. "This is a provocation that proves that the self-confidence and insolence of the Iranians is growing from day to day," he said Wednesday. "This happens after the Iranian president's visit to south Lebanon and his aggressive declarations there towards Israel."
Liberman did not mention Egypt by name but said Israel's allies should pay close attention to the situation. "We expect the international community to act speedily with determination against the Iranian provocations, designed to deteriorate the situation in the area, and put the Iranians in their place," he said.
On Wednesday, national security experts suggested Israel could respond to Iran's provocation with action of their own:
U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley Thursday suggested only that the United States was monitoring the mounting situation.
In addition, the geographical position of the Suez Canal is also pivotal for the global oil market. Initial reports of Iranian passage caused oil prices to increase slightly Wednesday.