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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Iranian Ships to Enter Mediterranean

Iranian Navy Ship Kharg (AOR-431), an oiler/ammuntion ship
For the first time since 1979, it appears that a couple of Iranian Navy ships will enter the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal (see here where it is reported they entered the Suez Canal on 22 Feb):
Two Iranian naval ships have entered Egypt's Suez Canal and are heading towards the Mediterranean, a canal official said.

"They entered the canal at 5:45am," the official told Reuters news agency on Tuesday.

The two vessels, Alvand, a patrol frigate and Kharg, a supply ship, are the first naval vessels to go through the canal since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, after which diplomatic ties between Egypt and Iran were strained.

Egypt's ruling military council, facing its first diplomatic challenge since taking power on February 11, approved the vessels' passage through the canal.

The canal is a vital global trading route and a major source of revenue for the Egyptian authorities.

Israel takes a "grave view" of the passage of the ships.

On Sunday, after a weekly meeting of his cabinet, Binyamin Netanyahu , Israeli prime minister denounced the ships' arrival in the region as an Iranian power play.

And last week, the prospect of the Suez crossing was described by Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's far-right foreign minister, as a "provocation" by Iran.

But an Iranian diplomat said that, "This will be a routine visit, within international law, in line with the co-operation 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.

Alvand, a Iranian frigate,
The prospect of these ships making it through the canal and heading for their announced destination of Syria has many people at increasing flail levels, especially the Israelis.

The ships themselves are a small frigate and INS Kharg a fleet oiler/ammuntion ship that has served as the flag ship of the Iranian Navy (see USNI Guide to Combat Fleets of the World by Eric Wertheim here).

The ships themselves pose little threat to anyone, unless, in a repeat of a famous incident in the Canal's past, they drop mines along the way, as Libya is suspected of doing in 1984. That incident, which damaged 18 or so ships was denounced at the time by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeni, though praised at lower levels in Iran (see here). Given that record and the scrutiny that will be given these ships, a mining mission seems unlikely.

No, the concern is that these vessels, both "warships," may be carrying some cargo dangerous to Israel to Israel's enemies in Syria. Presumably, the oiler, being larger may be carrying a large amount of something that would improve the military position of anti-Israel forces. Perhaps a batch of rockets? New warheads of some sort?

Unlike merchant ships, it is unlikely that the threat of force would allow these ships to be searched. Further, in this particular chess game, it seems as likely as not that there is nothing on these ships.Does it matter? The Iranian goal is to set a precedent - to allow for the free movement of its naval vessels on the high seas to a sovereign nation that is not under blockade. That sovereign nation being, of course, Syria.

There is that the magic word "blockade."

As you may recall, Israel has indicted ships attempting to carry supplies into Gaza. As noted in an earlier post (), this seems to be a legal blockade of Gaza. There is an interesting piece by a Israeli legal scholar Ruth Lapidoth, The Legal Basis of Israel's Naval Blockade of Gaza, which lays out the argument that the blockade of Gaza is perfectly legal under international law.The piece cites the San Remo Manual as setting out the appropriate rules for parties to an armed conflict:
93. A blockade shall be declared and notified to all belligerents and neutral States. 94. The declaration shall specify the commencement, duration, location, and extent of the blockade and the period within which vessels of neutral States may leave the blockaded coastline.
95. A blockade must be effective. The question whether a blockade is effective is a question of fact.
96. The force maintaining the blockade may be stationed at a distance determined by military requirements. 97. A blockade may be enforced and maintained by a combination of legitimate methods and means of warfare provided this combination does not result in acts inconsistent with the rules set out in this document. 98. Merchant vessels believed on reasonable grounds to be breaching a blockade may be captured. Merchant vessels which, after prior warning, clearly resist capture may be attacked. 99. A blockade must not bar access to the ports and coasts of neutral States. 100. A blockade must be applied impartially to the vessels of all States. 101. The cessation, temporary lifting, re-establishment, extension or other alteration of a blockade must be declared and notified as in paragraphs 93 and 94. 102. The declaration or establishment of a blockade is prohibited if: (a) it has the sole purpose of starving the civilian population or denying it other objects essential for its survival; or(b) the damage to the civilian population is, or may be expected to be, excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated from the blockade. 103. If the civilian population of the blockaded territory is inadequately provided with food and other objects essential for its survival, the blockading party must provide for free passage of such foodstuffs and other essential supplies, subject to: (a) the right to prescribe the technical arrangements, including search, under which such passage is permitted; and(b) the condition that the distribution of such supplies shall be made under the local supervision of a Protecting Power or a humanitarian organization which offers guarantees of impartiality, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross. 104. The blockading belligerent shall allow the passage of medical supplies for the civilian population or for the wounded and sick members of armed forces, subject to the right to prescribe technical arrangements, including search, under which such passage is permitted.
A possible route from the north end of the Suez Canal to Syria
Professor Lapidoth finds that these rules applied to a blockade of Gaza.

Syria, on the other hand, may be a different kettle of fish. As the Professor notes in her piece, the definition of "armed conflict" that justifies a blockade does not require a formal declaration of war in these times. Certainly, Israel and Syria have not been peaceful neighbors but the imposition of a blockade on Syrian ports is, without a doubt, an act of war that may bring consequences that Israel and the rest of the world mat not be willing to pay at this time.

So, I expect that a war of words will continue and these ships will be allowed their "peaceful" transit in the Mediterranean this time. You may count on them being closely watched by every one with a stake  in this iteration of Iran's war with Israel.

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