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Are U.S. Warships Gearing Up for a Confrontation With an Iranian Aid Flotilla to Gaza?

A U.S. Navy fleet is moving through the Suez Canal into the Red Sea, probably aiming to head off the Iranian flotilla headed toward Gaza.

Anchors aweigh. The United States Navy is sending an aircraft carrier and nearly a dozen other warships through the Suez Canal and into the Red Sea, according to the British Arabic Language newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi, which reported that the ships carry infantry troops, armored vehicles, and ammunition.

The report was taken very seriously in Israel, where two major newspapers gave it headline coverage -- perhaps because the U.S. fleet is joined by at least one Israeli ship, according to eyewitnesses who saw it pass through the Canal.

Iran’s Press TV claims that the Defense Department has confirmed the movement of American ships. However, neither the U.S. nor the Israeli governments have made any statement about the fleet’s destination or purpose. So we’re left to speculate.

Can it be just coincidence that this is happening precisely when “two Iranian vessels are due to set sail for Gaza in the coming week,” according to Al Jazeera , sponsored by the Iranian Red Crescent, carrying food, medicine, and clothing? And when Iran is promising more aid flotillas after this first one?

When the Iranian flotilla was first announced, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said: "I don't think that Iran's intentions vis-a-vis Gaza are benign." Since then, the U.S. has remained silent.’s Mark Hosenball says he has talked with U.S. and European officials and found them “surprisingly relaxed” about the Iranian challenge to Israel’s blockade of Gaza. They told him that “Tehran actually seems to have dialed back some of its rhetoric and threats for the moment,” and pointed out that the Navy is the weakest arm of Iran’s military.

But if U.S. officials are so relaxed, why spend a fortune (and it does cost a fortune) to move a whole war fleet including an aircraft carrier into the Red Sea and perhaps further, to the Persian Gulf -- where Israeli nuclear submarines are also headed ?

Egypt, which controls the Canal, has a central role to play in this drama. Egyptian troops guarded the Canal, which was closed to other traffic, while the U.S. fleet passed through, despite criticism from leaders of Egyptian opposition parties.

It remains unclear how the Egyptians would deal with the Iranian aid ships. Those ships plan to pass through the Canal and then stay close enough to shore to be in Egyptian waters until reaching the area off the Gaza coast, which Israel claims as its territorial waters.

Israel radio has reported that Cairo rejected an Israeli request by for Egypt to block the Iranian ships, claiming that under international law the canal must be free to all ships. However, the Egyptians could delay the Iranians on technicalities for a long time.

Iranian officials have denied a report that their naval forces would escort the ships. “But if and when the Iranian ship reaches the Mediterranean,” as Hosenball says, “no one can be sure what will happen.” However we can be sure that an Iranian ship approaching Gaza would be a major crisis for both the Netanyahu government in Israel and the Obama administration. Very likely, the U.S. administration hopes that its war fleet, accompanied by a token Israeli ship for symbolic value, will head off the need to face that crisis.

In fact, though the threat of violent confrontation is very real, the whole unfolding drama is driven largely by concerns about symbolism. One European official told Hosenball that the Egyptians might well choose to stall the Iranians’ passage in order to reassert Cairo’s influence in the wake of efforts by Turkey and Brazil to broker a nuclear deal with Iran. Then there’s a point of view in Iran that its own government is sending the ships mainly as a way to reassert its influence in the region over a rising Turkey.

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