Iran and U.S. in the Suez Canal

'The Ongoing Stability of this Important Waterway'

On Wednesday the U.S. Navy official website reported: “Enterprise Carrier Strike Group (CSG) transited the Suez Canal and entered the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility (AOR), Feb. 15.” This refers to the passage of the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise (CVN-65), from the Mediterranean into the Red Sea.  It is accompanied by the guided missile cruiser USS Leyte Gulf and the USNS Arctic, a combat support ship. Naval strike group commander Rear Admiral Terry Craft says such passage is routine and “demonstrates the ongoing stability of this important waterway.” Are we to suppose that if the U.S. didn’t deploy massive military power in the canal, or if the Egyptians denied access, the waterway would be “unstable”?

The passage is indeed routine. On April 28, 1986 the Enterprise voyaged from the Indian Ocean through the Red Sea and canal into the Mediterranean in order to support “Operation Eldorado Canyon.” In that operation, U.S. aircraft repeatedly entered the airspace over the Gulf of Sidra, which Libya claimed as its territorial waters, challenging Gadafy’s “Line of Defense.” (This was before Gadafy decided to kiss up to the U.S. and other imperialist powers.) They deliberately provoked a confrontation and killed 56 Libyans including Gadafy’s 18 month old daughter.

The USS John F. Kennedy (CV 67) was sent to the Red Sea in support of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1991. Aircraft carriers including the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) regularly ply the waters of the Red Sea and pass through the canal, projecting power and “maintaining security.”

The 5th Fleet, whose “area of responsibility” includes the Persian Gulf, Red Sea, Arabian Sea, and East African coast as far south as Kenya, is headquartered in Bahrain. That country is anything but secure right now. The emir of a dynasty dating back to the 1780s is quaking in his sandals as his people defy the military and police and occupy Manama’s Pearl Square. They are inspired by the heroic Egyptian people of all ages and faiths who refused to abandon Tahrir Square in Cairo and brought down the despotic Mubarak. The people are rising up from North Africa to the Gulf—invariably (except in the case of Iran) against dictators backed by Washington and protected by the 5th Fleet.

Perhaps the peoples of the region wonder why the U.S. Navy feels it has any “responsibility” for an area 6000 miles away from U.S. shores. More likely, they understand precisely what the U.S. is responsible for: the protection of an intolerable status quo. What are the U.S. bases for — in Eritrea, Bahrain, Oman, UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Iraq — other than to maintain the security of the hated elites who back the U.S. in its wars, provide optimal conditions for U.S. investment, and provide weaponry for “security forces” who keep the people down?

Those who disparage these spontaneous uprisings as lacking in political consciousness: Do you not suppose that the masses rebelling understand the basic dynamics of imperialism? You don’t need to read banned texts by Lenin to understand that all the hated regimes rely on the U.S. for support, that the U.S. is all about profiting the few, that the U.S. is controlled by the rich who oppress everyone else. A young man at a demonstration in Egypt holds up a placard reading, “Egypt supports Wisconsin. One world, one pain.”  That says it all.

The arrival of the USS Enterprise coincided with the arrival of two Iranian military vessels (a frigate and supply ship) in the Red Sea. They have been approved by Suez Canal authorities (and thus the Egyptian military) to transit the waterway Monday en route to the coast of Syria, an Iranian ally. This will be the first time that has happened since the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

The Constantinople Convention of 1888 guarantees that the canal “shall always be free and open, in time of war as in time of peace, to every vessel of commerce or of war, without distinction of flag.” So the Iranians might at any point have demanded their right to use it. This is no big deal.

The treaty does have an Article 10, allowing measures for “the defense of Egypt and the maintenance of public order.”  This was invoked by Egypt from 1949 to bar Israeli shipping from using the canal. Israeli forces had, after all, massacred Arabs and driven 700,000 into refugee camps and exile in order to form the Zionist state; Egypt and other Arab states attacked Israel only after the carnage was well underway. Israel attacked Egypt in 1956 and 1967, occupying Egyptian territory. But after the Camp David Accords of 1978, Israel gained access to the canal, both for commercial and military ships. Egyptian authorities allowed missile-class warships and missile-equipped submarines to pass through the channel into the Red Sea in 2009, aware that they were preparing for a possible attack on Iran.

The Iranians are entirely in their rights. But Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman calls the passage a “provocation.”  Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk calls the move “very provocative.”  No doubt the U.S. State Department will echo this charge.  Meanwhile Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu calls the situation “grave” and tells his cabinet the Jewish state will have to boost defense spending (which means, of course, that U.S. taxpayers will have to pay more).

Haaretz columnist, Aluf Benn, argues that Egypt’s decision to permit transit indicates that “Egypt is no longer committed to an alliance with Israel against Iran.” If so, it is the most positive achievement so far of Egypt’s “half-revolution”!

“Provocation”?! Haven’t the peoples of this “area of responsibility” of the U.S. Navy been provoked enough by the U.S. and Israel in recent days to laugh off this charge? Whatever they may think of Iran — and certainly feelings vary throughout this complicated region — they certainly can’t view a couple Iranian warships as anything comparably provocative to the Enterprise.

Every substantial report about the uprising in Bahrain mentions how the emirs or kings of the country have for over six decades hosted the 5th Fleet, and how the relationship holds incalculable strategic importance. Bahrain, for example, endorsed and facilitated the U.S. attack on Iraq during the first Gulf War and supported the 2003 invasion. Like Mubarak’s Egypt it’s been a “friend” of the U.S. Its friendship for the U.S., like that of Egypt, has been expressed through conciliatory gestures towards Israel including a degree of diplomatic recognition of the Zionist state.

In the last few days the Arab world (and the whole world) has learned of the duplicity of the U.S. and Israeli-backed Palestinian Authority. We’ve learned about the U.S. alarm over the UN resolution condemning the manifestly illegal Jewish settlements on the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and how Obama tried to strong-arm the PA into requesting the tabling of the resolution.
The world has seen the sickening spectacle of the U.S. UN ambassador once again shielding the increasingly — shamelessly and overtly — racist apartheid-state from international censure by vetoing that entirely appropriate resolution endorsed by the U.K., Russia, China, France, Germany, India, Brazil, South Africa, Nigeria, everybody else but the U.S.

This was the Obama administration’s first UNSC veto. Why? Because, Ambassador Susan Burns lectured the world, to pass the resolution might set back the cause of a Palestinian state by causing the two sides to “harden” blah blah blah…

The rational mind — not just in the Enterprise’s AOR but everywhere — must wonder how the American officials can expect to retain any credibility. Having demanded the end of settlement activity, then backed off cravenly when Netanyahu refused — while maintaining the uninterrupted flow of aid to the apartheid state — how can the U.S. posture as a force for any good at all in this region for which it laughably claims “responsibility”?

“Hardening of sides”? Please!  The Palestinian officials aligned with the U.S. and Israel have been softening, offering huge concessions that when revealed to the people provoked outrage. That’s why chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erakat, had to resign in disgrace. And the Israeli position has hardened because the Zionists know that they have Obama over a barrel; he knows that if he challenges the Lobby, it will likely destroy his prospects for a second term. There is no “peace process” towards an independent Palestinian state.

So the Enterprise, symbol of wars of aggression producing horrific, ongoing consequences, sails down the Red Sea.  A strike group for U.S. imperialism (associated in the Arabs’ minds with the implacable Zionist enemy) sails through the Gulf of Aden into the Arabian Sea, into the Gulf of Oman, into the Persian Gulf to “maintain pressure” on Iran, a country that has not attacked another in centuries. It claims to “insure stability” in a region where people relish the current instability and take pride in their state of dignified rebellion. The people are standing up, saying “Enough!” (Bas!) to dictators. Are they not implicitly saying “Enough!” to imperialism and Zionism as well?

Meanwhile Iranian warships, with the blessing of the new military caretaker government in Egypt, sail into the Mediterranean to remind Israel that an attack on Syria will have consequences. Now just how provocative is that?

Gary Leupp is a Professor of History at Tufts University, and author of numerous works on Japanese history. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Gary.

7 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on February 21st, 2011 at 9:56am #

    iran, in its doings with other nations, does a lot better than almost all european lands or empires.
    israel or u.s. deals with ‘alien’ pops as if they just landed on earth from jupiter.

    however, i do not approve of any religion. stoning people or cutting hands fro illegal stealing while allowing legal robbing by aghas, beks, deys, amirs, other ‘nobles’ is not the right thing to do.
    I do not know whether theocracy in iran cuts hands for stealing. it does, however, reward legal robbing. tnx

  2. MichaelKenny said on February 21st, 2011 at 11:52am #

    The “point” of this article is the last paragraph. Mr Leupp has spent literally years trying to hype the idea that a war with Iran was a sure thing for “next month”. Now, he’s trying to claim that the purpose of a single Iranian frigate, i.e.a vessel little bigger than a destroyer, sailing into the Med is “to remind Israel that an attack on Syria will have [unspecified!]consequences”. I don’t see any reason to treat his warmongering any more seriously this time than last time.

  3. kalidasa said on February 21st, 2011 at 5:59pm #

    Of course as we all know, it’s not the size of the ship, it’s the motion of the ocean.

    In this case that frigate is more than likely armed with SS-N-22 0r equivalent.
    If so, that’s a whole lotta shakin goin on.

  4. shabnam said on February 21st, 2011 at 6:01pm #

    Pillar of US Middle East Policy:



  5. Rehmat said on February 22nd, 2011 at 6:34am #

    Iran’s access to Suez Canal is no threat to the US imperialism – but it’s to Jewish occupation of Arab Palestine. Now, according to Israeli think tanks – Iran will be in a far better position to help the Islamic resistance groups fighting the Zionist entity in Gaza, Lebanon and Yemen.

  6. jayn0t said on February 22nd, 2011 at 6:37pm #

    This article is mostly the tired old leftist whinge about the hypocrisy of the USA. The most successful culture in history sends its warships around the world with impunity, and its media complain about weaker powers trying to do the same thing. But, unlike most leftists, Leupp give us an insight – it says ‘U.S. imperialism’ is “associated in the Arabs’ minds with the implacable Zionist enemy”. Is ‘U.S. imperialism’ as implacably anti-Arab and Islamophobic as Zionism? Are the Islam and the USA inherently in conflict?

  7. hayate said on February 22nd, 2011 at 7:52pm #

    The israelis remind me of the character “Ren” of the cartoon “Ren & Stimpy”. Ren is a chihuahua with no redeemable qualities. In one show, they did the usual split personality thing (you know, with 2 little guys, representing the good and bad aspects of the person, sitting on their shoulder and whispering into each ear), only with Ren, it was “bad Ren” and “indifferent Ren”, there was no “good Ren”.

    That’s israel.