U.S. and European defense and national-security officials say that the movement of a U.S. Navy aircraft-carrier group into the Red Sea through the Suez Canal is unrelated to an alleged attempt by Iran to send one or more ships carrying humanitarian aid to challenge Israel's blockade of Gaza.
Middle Eastern Web sites and news organizations, including several Israeli media outlets, over the last several days have published increasingly alarming stories about the fact that more than 12 U.S. warships over the last several days had sailed from the Mediterranean through the Suez Canal and into the Red Sea. Israeli reports, such as this one from the newspaper Haaretz said that at least one Israeli ship had also passed through the canal in the same direction. The U.K.-based Arabic language newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi reported that thousands of Egyptian troops had been deployed along the canal to protect the ships' as they passed through.
The U.S. naval movement through the canal, described by Al-Quds as one of the largest American flotillas to have passed through the canal in years, quickly provoked feverish speculation on both Israeli Web sites and some left-wing American sites that the deployment was somehow related to reports last week in semi-official Iranian media that Iran’s theocratic rulers were sending one or more ships containing humanitarian aid in the direction of Gaza, presumably to challenge the long-running blockade—which Israel in the last few days announced it was loosening.
As we reported last week, however, U.S. and European officials were relatively relaxed about the alleged Iranian blockade-running threat. The officials noted that Iran's ability to project naval power is limited and that Egyptian authorities might well delay the passage of any Gaza-bound Iranian vessel through the Suez Canal with inspections and red tape, even if it was absolutely clear that no weapons were on board.
Obama administration and European officials suggest that fears of a possible looming naval confrontation between the large American fleet and any Iranian boat headed for Gaza are greatly exaggerated. On Monday, the Pentagon distributed an announcement by the U.S. naval command covering the region confirming that a carrier strike group, headed by the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman, had successfully transited the Suez Canal on June 18. But the announcement characterized the naval movement as normal. It said that the carrier group was "relieving the Dwight D. Eisenhower [carrier group] as part of a routine rotation of forces during a scheduled deployment" in support of various ongoing American and allied military operations in the region.
"The U.S. Navy operates in waters all around the world," a Pentagon spokesman, Bryan Whitman, told Declassified. "Their presence provides security and stability." Other U.S. and European officials, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information, said their understanding was that there was no connection between the timing of the carrier group's passage through Suez and the alleged Iranian threat to challenge Israel's Gaza blockade.
The whole purported Iranian threat to try to run the Gaza blockade—and some of the more overheated media reporting, particularly from the Israeli press—ultimately may turn out to be an Internet-driven soufflé of speculation. The latest word from one of the Israeli Web sites that posted one of the more alarming reports about a possible U.S.-Iran confrontation on the high seas is that Iran is now backing away, or at least delaying, the departure of any aid ships for Gaza.