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US, Iran Acting on Different Threat Assessments in Middle Eastern Waters

By Edward Carney

On Monday, reporters from various news outlets were welcomed onto the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, the aircraft carrier that is currently operating in the Arabian Sea after its deployment to the Middle East was accelerated by the Trump administration in response to threats from the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The evidence of these threats reportedly stems from remarks by Revolutionary Guard officers to terrorist proxies in the broader region, as well as satellite images showing the presence of missiles on Iranian vessels in the Persian Gulf. Additionally, drone strikes on Saudi Arabia and the sabotage of four oil tankers near the United Arab Emirates were widely attributed to Iran in the month of May.

The media tours of the Lincoln yielded some reports that appeared to emulate the White House’s explanation for the military deployments that are ostensibly deterring further escalation. In addition to the Lincoln and the destroyers accompanying it, a B-52 bomber group has been stationed in Qatar. The administration also announced that 900 additional military personnel would be deployed to the region, while 600 would have their existing terms of deployment extended.

To some nervous observers, these gestures have the appearance of the US deliberately preparing for war, or at least risking an outcome in which Iran is provoked into launching an attack. But as CBS News put it in the wake of the Lincoln’s media engagement, “avoiding a war… looks an awful lot like preparing for one.” This and other report also quoted the commander of the carrier’s strike group, Rear Admiral John F.G. Wade, as saying that the Navy was taking every precaution to avoid needless or accidental escalation.

This is apparently why the Lincoln has never actually entered the Persian Gulf, despite the fact that it is an international waterway which has been transited by US warships on numerous occasions. “You don't want to inadvertently escalate something,” said Captain Putnam Browne, the Lincoln’s commanding officer. But the Associated Press said that the decision to keep the carrier outside the Strait of Hormuz was a “striking” one, which arguably underscores the Trump administration’s pursuit of a dual strategy consisting of alternating or simultaneous outreach and threats.

In this context, the semi-distant maneuvering of the Lincoln is accompanied by its constant readiness testing. According to CBS, the ship was running at “full throttle” on Monday and its crew and aircraft were conducting between 80 and 100 surveillance and training exercises per day, on average. The previous day, one of the nearby B-52 conducted a training exercise in coordination with the Lincoln, which included “simulated strike operations.”

The dual strategy on display in the Arabian Sea has been reflected in the public statements of Trump administration officials, as well. Last week, National Security Advisor John Bolton reiterated his belief that Iran was responsible for the recent drone strikes and tanker sabotage. But in reporting these remarks, many news outlets suggested that they were at odds with comments from President Trump himself, which insisted that the Iranians would prove interested in negotiations, and that the White House would be open to having such a conversation without precondition.

On Sunday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo evidently sought to split the difference between these two tactics, repeating Trump’s offer of no-strings-attached geopolitical discussions while also adhering to Bolton’s hawkish tone and stating that the US will not alleviate the pressure that it is trying to use in order to fundamentally change the behavior of the Iranian regime.

These remarks were delivered while Pompeo was in Switzerland as part of a broader European tour, which the Christian Science Monitor described as being “aimed at assuring wary leaders that the U.S. is not eager for war.” At the same time, Pompeo has presumably used his time in Europe to advance the administration’s efforts at obtaining more foreign support for its strategy of “maximum pressure” on the Iranian regime.

Such support has been relatively sparse among European nations, three of which are signatories to the Iran nuclear deal that President Trump pulled out of in May of last year. The United Kingdom, France, and Germany have all insisted upon continued adherence to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action but have struggled to provide Iran with financial incentives that the regime continues adequate. In recent days, Iranian officials have announced the country’s intention to begin scaling up its nuclear enrichment activities, leading the International Atomic Energy Agency to report for the first time that Iran may be in violation of the terms of the JCPOA.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that the regime might engage in talks with the US, but only if the latter showed “respect,” in part by reentering the 2015 agreement. At the same time, Rouhani sought to portray Trump’s offer as a sign that the Islamic Republic boasts intimidating strength and stands on similar military footing as the US. “The enemies sometimes say they have conditions for negotiations with Iran,” he said. “But in recent weeks they said they have no conditions. They threatened us as if they were a military superpower, but now they say they do not seek a war.”

Perhaps inspired by this conception of Iran’s strength, the country’s Foreign Ministry rejected the offer of negotiations out of hand. “The Islamic Republic of Iran does not pay attention to wordplay and expression of hidden agenda in new forms,” said the ministry’s spokesman, Abbas Mousavi.

Tehran’s anti-Western rhetoric has grown stronger amidst the escalating tensions, with some officials insisting that war is unlikely for no other reason than that the US fears the consequences. Similar such statements have been picked up by Iran’s allies in the region, with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah saying on Friday, “The US knows well that any war on Iran will not remain confined to Iran's borders. The entire region will burn, leading to all US forces and interests in the region to be annihilated.”

Such provocative statements arguably to represent a great deal less caution than has been exhibited by the US in its restrained maneuvering of the Lincoln. In the aftermath of Pompeo’s European tour, it remains to be seen whether the two sides’ respective actions and statements will convince the nations of Europe to take more assertive steps against Iran’s contribution to the escalating tensions. But in the meantime, the US has firm support from regional allies as it continues its efforts to contain Iran without provoking conflict.

Saudi Arabia called an emergency meeting of the Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation on Friday to discuss that very issue. And the following day, in a scheduled meeting of the OIC, Saudi King Salman opened the session by referencing the tanker attacks and drone strikes, laid the blame squarely on Iran, and urged action from the international community, saying, “We emphasize that these subversive terrorist acts are aimed not only at the kingdom and the Gulf region, but also on the security of navigation and energy supplies to the world.”

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