JERUSALEM — Two Israeli warships sailed through the Suez Canal on Tuesday, Israeli and Egyptian officials said, a move that appeared to be a new signal to Iran that Israel's reach could quickly extend to its archenemy's backyard.
The Suez Canal is a strategic waterway linking the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, the gateway to the Persian Gulf. Use of the Egyptian-controlled canal means Israeli naval vessels could reach waters off Iran in a matter of days, instead of taking a much longer route around Africa.
Israeli vessels regularly use the canal. But what is noteworthy in recent weeks is that the navy's moves have been publicized, albeit unofficially, by Israel.
Two of Israel's Saar class missile boats crossed through the Suez Canal and into the Red Sea, Israeli defense officials said. Speaking on condition of anonymity because the move was not officially publicized, they said it was connected to "the navy's recent activities around the Red Sea."
A Suez Canal official in Egypt confirmed the report.
Israel considers Iran its most serious threat, citing Tehran's nuclear program, its support for anti-Israel militant groups and bellicose statements by its hardline president. Israel believes Iran is developing nuclear weapons _ a charge Iran denies _ and has refused to rule out military action if Iran pushes forward with its atomic program.
Earlier this month, Israeli defense officials said one of the navy's Dolphin class submarines had also sailed to the Red Sea through the Suez Canal in June, returning July 5. Beyond the ability to threaten shipping, some foreign media reports say Dolphins can fire nuclear-tipped cruise missiles and serve as Israel's deterrent "second-strike" capability, allowing Israel to launch nuclear weapons from afar even if the country itself is targeted by a nuclear attack.
"There is nothing unusual about the navy being in those waters _ they often train there," said Shlomo Brom, a former Israeli general and a security expert at the Institute for National Security Studies.
"What is unusual, though, is that this information was made public. I believe it was likely leaked on purpose in order to signal to Iran that Israel has the capability of reaching them," Brom said.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said that under a long-standing treaty, warships can freely sail through Suez as long as they have no hostile intentions against the state that owns the canal. He declined to say whether the maneuver was aimed at sending a message, saying "I don't want to analyze an issue that I am not fully aware of."