US warships box in Iranian flotilla, delay Suez passage
The repeated delays and contradictory statements about the two Iranian warships' transit of the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean is accounted for by a standoff between the Iranian flotilla and five US warships deployed in recent days at the waterway's southern entrance and along its course, debkafile's sources disclose.
Thursday night, Feb. 17, the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, escorted by missile cruiser USS Leyte Gulf and the fast supply ship USNS Arctic, headed south through the canal. By Friday morning, they were through and taking up position opposite the Kharg cruiser and Alvand missile destroyer of the Iranian Navy's 12th Flotilla, which were waiting to enter the Suez Canal at the southern Red Sea entrance.
Furthermore, since the first week of February, the USS Kearsarge, another aircraft carrier, was posted in the Great Bitter Lake opposite Ismailia and the canal's main routes with a large contingent of marines aboard.
The USS George Washington carrier and the USS Carl Vinson were additionally deployed in the Gulf of Aden, the latter having been moved from the Pacific.
A battle of nerves is therefore underway.
The Iranian warships found themselves cheek to jowl with a major concentration of America naval might piling up in the Red Sea and Suez and were not sure what would happen if they went forward with their mission to transit the Suez Canal for the Mediterranean for the first time in 30 years on their way to Syria.
Sunday night, the Canal authorities announced another 48 hours delay shortly after Tehran state TV claimed the warships were already through to the Mediterranean.
And, finally, the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier was quietly transferred from Bahrain, headquarters of the US Fifth Fleet amid the anti-government uprising, to a point opposite the Iranian Gulf coast.
This pile-up of US naval, air and marine might at strategic points in the Middle East is a warning to meddlers to keep their hands off the revolutions, uprisings and protests sweeping Arab nations. It carries a special message for Tehran that the Obama administration will not permit the Islamic Republic's rulers to make military and political hay from the unrest – in Bahrain or anywhere else.
By positioning the Enterprise opposite Iran's 12th Flotilla at the Red Sea entrance to the Suez Canal on Feb. 17 Washington has confronted Tehran with a hard dilemma, which was practically spelled out by US State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley a day earlier: "If the ships move through the canal, we will evaluate what they actually do," he said. "It's not really about the ships. It's about what the ships are carrying, what's their destination, what's the cargo on board, where's it going, to whom and for what benefit."
This was the US spokesman's answer to the debkafile disclosure of Feb. 16 that the Kharg was carrying long-range surface missiles for Hizballah. It raised the possibility that the moment they venture to sail into the Suez Canal, the two Iranian warships will be boxed in between the Enterprise and the Kearsarge and called upon the allow their cargoes to be inspected as permitted by the last round of UN sanctions against Iran in the case of suspicious war freights.
According to debkafile's intelligence sources, the flurry of conflicting statements from Cairo and Tehran were issued to muddy the situation surrounding the Iranian flotilla and cloud Tehran's uncertainty about how to proceed. The next date announced for their passage, Tuesday night, Feb. 22, will be a testing moment.