CAIRO — Iran was pushing Egypt on Thursday to allow two of its warships to pass through the Suez Canal, amid conflicting reports from Cairo about the Egyptian response and despite warnings from Israel.
Iranian warships have not entered the Mediterranean through the canal since 1979, and Israel says any attempt to sail so close to its waters now would be a dangerous "provocation" that would demand a response.
"Iranian officials were in contact with officials in Cairo to secure the Iranian vessels' passage," Iran's state-run Press TV said on its website, citing Iranian naval officials.
The ships were due to pass the canal on Thursday, Israel Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman claimed, but in Egypt a senior Suez Canal Authority official insisted it had not received a request to allow the ships through.
"We did not receive any request for the passage of Iranian warships," Ahmed al-Manakhly, head of the canal's operations room, told AFP, adding he had no idea if any such ships were nearing the canal.
"Any warship needs approval from the defence ministry and the foreign ministry. We have seen no such approval. Before they pass, I need to have such an approval in my hand," he explained.
But privately, a canal official said the warships were on the list of ships scheduled to pass to the Mediterranean Sea before the passage was cancelled.
"They had permission, but the shipping agent told them yesterday the ships were cancelling. He said they are near Jeddah, and no new date was set," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Jeddah is a Saudi Arabian port on the Red Sea, more than 1,000 kilometres (625 miles) south of the canal.
A shipping agent, who also declined to be named because of the sensitivity of ties between Iran and Egypt, said that a request had been submitted to the government but that officials turned it down.
Shipping agents in the canal are deputised to pay dues for the ships' passage and also indemnify the canal against in damage in case of an accident.
"The government and intelligence got involved," said one. "They said no."
An Iranian diplomat said a request for authorisation had been submitted to the Egyptian foreign ministry.
"There is a request, but the problem seems to be administrative, because of the current situation in Egypt," he told AFP. "We have asked the foreign ministry for permission, and there is still ongoing communication.
"But they asked us to declare the date of passage, which is related to open banks, because any ship that has to pass has to pay dues, warships and non warships," he explained, also speaking on condition of anonymity.
Banks remain closed in Egypt after an 18-day revolt toppled president Hosni Mubarak on February 11, but their closure has not prevented other ships from passing, with their dues being payed by shipping agents.
If the ships were to cross it would be the first time Iranian naval ships have passed the canal since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, which led to the severing of full diplomatic ties with Egypt.
"The Iranian side is trying on administrative side to get the permission needed as quickly as possible," the Iranian diplomat said.
Iran's official Fars news agency, quoting top naval commanders, said the ships are the 33,000-tonne refuelling and support vessel Kharg and the 1,500-tonne light patrol frigate Alvand, both British built.
The Kharg has a crew of 250 and can carry up to three helicopters. The Alvand is armed with torpedos and anti-ship missiles.
According to Fars, the ships form part of Iran's 12th flotilla, which is normally assigned to protect Iranian merchant vessels in the Gulf of Aden, an area plagued by Somali pirates.