The White House is sending a military message to Iran with a show of naval and aviation force headed to the Persian Gulf.
President Trump's national security team claimed Monday that there are “troubling and escalatory indications and warnings” of a possible Iranian attack on U.S. “interests.”
Exactly what prompted the action was unclear, but it marked a further step in sharply rising tensions between the Trump administration and the Islamic Republic.
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"The United States is not seeking war with the Iranian regime, but we are fully prepared to respond to any attack," said National Security Advisor John Bolton.
In response to that alleged threat, the Pentagon dispatched the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and its strike force to the Persian Gulf, intending to show that “unrelenting force” will meet any attack on American forces or allies.
Neither Bolton nor other officials would provide any details about the supposed threat, which comes as the Trump administration wages a campaign of intensifying pressure against Iran and nearly a year after it withdrew from an Obama-era nuclear deal with Tehran.
In Iran, the semi-official ISNA news agency on Monday quoted an anonymous official as saying that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani planned a broadcast address Wednesday and might discuss “counteractions” Tehran will take over America’s withdrawal from the international nuclear deal.
The agreement limited Iran’s enrichment of uranium amid Western concerns that Tehran’s program could allow it to build nuclear weapons. Iran insists its program is for peaceful purposes.
“Our objective is to get the Islamic Republic of Iran to behave like a normal nation,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters during a visit to Finland. “When they do that, we will welcome them back.”
The USS Lincoln was on a training exercise in the Mediterranean Sea and, with the White House’s order, it will arrive in the Middle East two weeks earlier than initially planned. It forces the ships to cancel a planned stop in Croatia.
For years, the U.S. maintained a carrier presence in the Persian Gulf and Middle East region. During the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there were two carriers in the area, but that was reduced to one.
Last year, the administration decided to end the continuous carrier presence and send a strike group only intermittently into the region. The U.S. Navy currently has no aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf.
Jon Alterman, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, questioned whether the U.S. adequately understands Iranian motivations and actions, and whether the military move was warranted.
“I don’t think we should let the Iranians pull our chain at the time and place of their choosing,” he said. “You can communicate seriousness to the Iranians without moving a lot of assets around, because moving assets is expensive and keeps assets from being in other places.”
He added, however, that Iran has the capability to harm Americans, but it’s difficult to assess the situation without knowing more about the intelligence that prompted the move.
Mark Dubowitz, who studies Iran for the Washington-based policy institute Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said a credible threat of overwhelming force “will make war less likely.”
“If past is prologue, the regime will always move aggressively forward when it senses American weakness and recoil when it sensed American strength,” Dubowitz said.
Along with the Lincoln, Bolton mentioned “a bomber task force,” which suggested the Pentagon is deploying a land-based bomber aircraft somewhere in the region, perhaps on the Arabian Peninsula.
“It’s a very competent strike force,” said Mark Balmert, a retired Navy Rear Admiral who now heads the San Diego Military Advisory Council. "You send a very strong signal right away (to Iran) that we can act and respond on a moment's notice to something that you're doing. It's a great deterrent."
The retired Rear Admiral said combined U.S. sea and air power is the best available military option because it would take much longer to mobilize and equip U.S. ground troops in the Middle East.
Balmert also said the use of ground troops pose a potential political problem for the U.S. and its Middle East allies.
“We need a host nation (in the Gulf area) that will permit the build-up of our ground forces,” Balmert said. “And when that host nation does that, they're taking a side, they're being drawn into the matter."
The Trump administration has been intensifying its pressure campaign against Iran.
Last month, President Donald Trump announced the U.S. would no longer exempt any countries from U.S. sanctions if they continue to buy Iranian oil, a decision that primarily affects the five remaining major importers: China and India and U.S. treaty allies Japan, South Korea and Turkey.
The U.S. also recently designated Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist group, the first ever for an entire division of another government.
Trump withdrew from the Obama administration’s landmark nuclear deal with Iran in May 2018 and, in the months that followed, reimposed punishing sanctions including those targeting Iran’s oil, shipping and banking sectors.
Associated Press writers Robert Burns and Matthew Lee contributed to this report.