The chief of Iran's navy on Wednesday rejected Israeli criticism of Tehran's sending two Iranian warships through the Suez Canal and into the Mediterranean Sea, saying the vessels pose no threat to the region.
Adm. Habibollah Sayyari told reporters upon his arrival in the Syrian capital of Damascus on Wednesday that the frigate Alvand and the supply ship Kharq will arrive on Thursday in the Syrian port of Latakia for a training mission. He refused to say how long the ships would remain in the Mediterranean.
The two Iranian vessels sailed through the Suez Canal and into the Mediterranean on Tuesday, the first such trip in at least three decades, prompting Israeli charges that Tehran is seeking to dominate the Middle East.
Sayyari dismissed the criticism, saying the Jewish state approaches the matter from "its hostile vision" and that the vessels are "a peaceful message to all nations."
However, the voyage has raised tensions with archrival Israel, and could further destabilize the Middle East, a region already reeling from an unprecedented wave of anti-government rebellions.
It also appeared to be an Iranian attempt to test Egypt, which is the gatekeeper of the strategic canal which links the Red Sea and the Mediterranean.
Egypt's new military rulers, who took power from ousted President Hosni Mubarak on Feb. 11, appeared to have no choice but to allow the passage. An international convention regulating shipping says the canal must be open "to every vessel of commerce or of war."
In sending warships to the Mediterranean now, Iran was asserting itself as a regional power and testing whether Egypt's new rulers will stick to the pro-Western line of the Mubarak government. Some said the voyage also signals that Iran is ready to come to the aid of regional allies, including Syria and Iranian proxies Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
In Washington, the Pentagon downplayed concerns over the voyage.
"I wouldn't say that there's any concern," said Marine Col. Dave Lapan, a spokesman for the Defense Department.
"We're watching the situation. We have said generally that Iran's actions are not helpful but we would expect that these Iranian ships would adhere to international law no matter where they operate, whether it's in the Mediterranean elsewhere."
Lapan noted that the U.S. military has a strong presence in the Mediterranean region _ multiple ships, aircraft and other military capabilities.