With carrier deployment, US pressure on Iran takes on new contours
The United States maintains a carrier strike group on rotation in and around the strategic Arab Gulf region for its theatre-deployed forces as a routine matter, as it does in many other parts of the world.
For the operational flexibility they enable, recent years have seen US Navy aircraft carriers more frequently in the region as American ground forces fought large-scale wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
During a significant part of those wars and at the height of tensions over Iran’s nuclear programme and regional activities, the United States maintained not one but two carrier strike groups in the region simultaneously.
However when US national security adviser John Bolton announced May 6 that the United States was diverting the USS Abraham Lincoln with Carrier Strike Group 12 to its Central Command, which covers the Gulf region, and assigning it a bomber task force comprising B-52s, his signal was unmistakably razor-edged.
The decision to deploy the Abraham Lincoln, which had been conducting operations in the Mediterranean, to the Gulf came after the United States said it received “troubling and escalatory indications and warnings” from Iran.
With four squadrons of F-18 Super Hornets, two squadrons of Seahawk helicopters and an airborne early warning and control capability, the Abraham Lincoln brings added firepower and flexibility to US forces in the region.
B-52s can carry more than 30,000 kilograms of bombs and missiles — including nuclear weapons. Employing B-52s, the US military could launch cruise missiles and bunker-buster bombs from long distances to suppress air defence systems, like the Russia-made S-300, and penetrate hardened military targets, such as nuclear or missile storage facilities.
The deployment buttresses US power but is more significant for the message it carries than the military assets and weaponry themselves.
US President Donald Trump assumed his presidency on a commitment to “ripping up” the “disastrous” nuclear deal with Iran. To the surprise of many — and reportedly against the advice of key military and security leaders — Trump followed through by withdrawing from the multilateral accord in 2018 and reimposing crippling sanctions on Iran.
The Iran nuclear deal has lived on for a year but may not last much longer as the stakes are raised in America’s growing confrontation with Iran. Tehran announced it will withdraw in part from the deal and issued a 60-day notice to the accord’s remaining signatories to effectively save the deal before it restarts production of highly enriched uranium.
From the beginning, Trump has called for a renegotiation of the deal with Iran to cover its ballistic missile programme and “malign” regional activities in addition to its nuclear programme.
With US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Bolton — both Iran hawks — occupying key positions, the White House has stepped up efforts to strategically undermine Iran by using America’s economic and military prowess to fuller effect.
Over the past year, Iran’s oil revenues have nosedived as American sanctions halved oil exports by forcing key customers to limit purchases. Now, the United States has ended sanctions waivers for all customers of Iranian oil with the aim of driving Iran’s oil income to the ground.
Trump’s strategy has caused enormous economic and political pressure on Iran; foreign investors have stayed out and its currency has plummeted, quadrupling inflation.
Iranian President Hassan Rohani, re-elected on a mandate to uplift the economy including by negotiating the end to international sanctions, appears increasingly hapless at home. Apathy and frustration among ordinary Iranians are reportedly brewing again.
The United States designated Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organisation on April 8 in a move with far-reaching ramifications for Tehran at home and abroad. It was described as “vicious” by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned of “dangerous consequences” ahead.
Under the Obama administration, amid military campaigns in Iraq and Iran, American leaders avoided antagonising Iran to contain the threat of further regional destabilisation and violence.
Over the years, Iranian missiles, its use of proxies and deeply entrenched political agents around the wider region have lent credibility to its claims that US forces and key interests lie exposed to its capabilities and influence.
The United States has decided to go after these apparent elements of Iranian power that have allowed it to challenge a far superior military and economic power and take on an outsized regional role and significance.
Putting the squeeze on Iran with multifaceted pressure, the United States is seeking to control the escalation ladder as it pre-empts Iran’s potential responses in the weeks ahead.
The United States maintains it is “not seeking war” with Iran but the trajectory of developments increases the odds of a head-on collision, including as a result of miscalculation.