Conflicting messaging is coming out of the Trump Administration as to why the Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and a contingent of strategic bombers are being deployed to the Persian Gulf area of operations. The initial news of the deployments came in a peculiar form, emanating from controversial National Security Advisor John Bolton, not the Pentagon, the President, or a White House spokesperson. The official statement from Bolton reads:
“In response to a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings, the United States is deploying the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and a bomber task force to the U.S. Central Command region to send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force. The United States is not seeking war with the Iranian regime, but we are fully prepared to respond to any attack, whether by proxy, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or regular Iranian forces.”
At the same time, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that the deployment was “something we’ve been working on for a little while,” indicating that it wasn’t really a result of new intelligence or a set of evolving circumstances, while also adding that there have been “escalatory actions from the Iranians,” but giving no examples of such acts.
This begs the question, is this just a planned deployment that is being repackaged to put Iran further on notice? Bolton’s statement doesn’t even mention the current spate of rocket attacks in Israel, nor does it make those actions part of the case for the seemingly abrupt movement of American forces. Hamas, which enjoys support from Iran, has fired hundreds of rockets into Israel in recent days and Israel has launched a large number of retaliatory strikes on Hamas locations in the Gaza Strip, including killing Hamas’ liaison with Iran, the first targeting killing by Israeli forces in years.
Up until recently, USS Abraham Lincoln and her escorts were churning through the waters in Eastern Mediterranean, putting them in a prime position for pushing south, through the Suez Canal and eventually into the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility. The two maritime hot-spots in that region would be the Mandeb Strait and the Strait Of Hormuz, both of which are major choke-points that Iran and its proxies could attempt to shut off at any given time. Such a move could have a dire economic impact across global markets and more. The Mandeb Strait has already become a low-intensity missile shooting gallery in recent years, while the U.S. is fully aware of Iran’s ability to cut off the Strait of Hormuz, which could severely impact even the U.S. military’s own logistics.
It’s also worth noting that the Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group’s (ARG) last known position was the Persian Gulf and the first Middle East detachment of the USAF F-35As is also in the region at Al Dhafra Air Base in the UAE.
The order to move bombers back into the Middle East is a bit more intriguing as America’s B-52 and B-1B fleets have just gotten their first reprieve from constant forward deployments to the Middle East, and the combat operations that came with those deployments, in years. With B-1Bs leaving Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar last March, it was thought that an extensive break from the rotational bomber deployments there would allow the bombers to receive much-needed maintenance and upgradesand allow for their crew to take part training for other mission sets.
The tired B-1B force was grounded for weeks not long after its last aircraft returned from the Middle East due to issues with the type’s troubled ejection system. The swing-wing bombers began returning to the air just last week. It’s important to note that we don’t know what bomber type is being sent back to the Arabian Peninsula to fulfill the recently announced orders.
It is possible that this movement, and the high-end messaging that has come with it, was planned to follow the Trump Administration’s somewhat sudden announcement that it would not grant eight countries continuing waivers to import crude oil from Iran. The White House provided the waivers following its reinstatement of sanctions on Iran after tearing up the Iran nuclear deal that was executed by the Obama Administration. Clearly, cutting off Iran from the remaining eight oil importing countries as approved by the U.S. would put an even tighter squeeze on Iran’s faltering economy and could heighten the risk of Iran lashing out as a result. With this in mind, this all could have been planned in anticipation of Iranian threats.
All this is part of maximum pressure policy against Iran that is largely seen as the brainchild of National Security Advisor John Bolton, a longtime hawk when it comes to Iran (and much more), its missile and nuclear programs, and the country’s military excursions abroad, who has continuously pushed for regime change over the years.
Although Iran stands no chance of winning a protracted military conflict with the United States and its allies in the region, such an action could come at an incredibly high price. Iran has the ability to rain ballistic missiles down throughout the region, including on installations where American units are based. The Persian Gulf would likely instantly turn into a super-anti-ship missile engagement zone, which would result in major losses, both intended and unintended, and could possibly cause an environmental disaster.
Mining of the Strait of Hormuz would result in a long de-mining effort that may not even be possible to begin until hostilities cease. This would cut the world off from a massive amount of its daily oil supply and would likely crush the world economy and have a terrible impact on the world’s population, and especially on those living in poorer countries.
Iran could also activate its proxies for a full-on assault on U.S. interests and that of its allies. Hezbollah, which has tens of thousands of powerful rockets in Lebanon, and other advanced weapons, would surely open a second front on Israel’s northern border. That conflict has alone has become particularly dreaded as Hezbollah’s weapons capabilities and fighting experience in Syria have mounted.
Keep in mind that this doesn’t even start to go into the idea of regime change, which would include stabilizing the Iranian population after the initial fighting and making sure what comes next in terms of leadership in that country isn’t worse than what came before. The American people have no appetite for more wars of choice in the Middle East and especially long-term occupations. But if things dramatically escalate, even from a very limited conflict, to begin with, there may be few alternatives.
The bottom line here is that a war with Iran would make the invasion of Iraq look like a relatively tame, highly localized conflict and full-on regime change operation would likely be a generational project of incredible cost, both in terms of blood and treasure. John Bolton’s particular brand of hawkish foreign policy was key in getting us into the Iraq War catastrophe and what came after and he seems to want something similar in Iran. The warning alarms have been ringing on this for some time now from a wide variety of sources. They should be heeded.
Clearly, if there is real intel that points to potential Iranian actions that would heavily impact American interests in the region, pouring in military assets to deter such acts makes sense. But if the Administration is looking to give Iran a “bloody nose” in order to put them in their place, which Bolton, in particular, has wanted in the past, doing so doesn’t come without risk of starting something much more consequential that can’t be stopped.