US carrier in Arabian Gulf sends clear signal to Iran

'USS Abraham Lincoln' is the centrepiece of the Pentagon's response to what it calls Iranian threats

Under a starry sky, US Navy fighter jets took off from the aircraft carrier's deck and flew north over the darkened waters of the northern Arabian Sea, a signal to Iran that this symbol of the American military's global reach is back in its neighbourhood, perhaps to stay.

The USS Abraham Lincoln, with its contingent of Navy destroyers and cruisers and a fighting force of about 70 aircraft, is the centrepiece of the Pentagon's response to what it calls Iranian threats to attack US forces or commercial shipping in the Arabian Gulf region. In recent years, there has been no regular US aircraft carrier presence in the Middle East.

US officials said that signs of heightened Iranian preparations to strike US and other targets in the waters off Iran as well as in Iraq and Yemen in late April emerged shortly after the Donald Trump administration said it was clamping down further on Tehran's economy by ending waivers to sanctions on buyers of Iranian crude oil.

The administration went a step beyond that on Friday, announcing penalties that target Iran's largest petrochemical company.

On Saturday the Abraham Lincoln was sailing through international waters east of Oman, about 200 miles from Iran's southern coast. One month after its arrival in the region, the carrier has not entered the Arabian Gulf, and it is not apparent that it will. The USS Gonzalez, a destroyer that is part of the Abraham Lincoln strike group, is operating in the Gulf.

Rear Adm. John F.G. Wade, commander of the Abraham Lincoln strike group, said Iran's naval forces adhered to international standards of interaction with ships in his group.

"Since we've been operating in the region, we've had several interactions with Iranians," he said. "To this point all have been safe and professional – meaning, the Iranians have done nothing to impede our manoeuvrability or acted in a way which required us to take defensive measures."

The Abraham Lincoln's contingent of 44 Navy F-18 Super Hornets are flying a carefully calibrated set of missions off the carrier night and day, mainly to establish a visible US "presence" that Marine Gen Frank McKenzie, the head of Central Command, said on Saturday seems to have caused Iran to "tinker with" its preparation for potential attacks.

He said on Friday that he thinks Iran had been planning some sort of attack on shipping or US forces in Iraq. Two other officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Iran's ships, submarines, surface-to-air missiles and drone aircraft were at a high state of readiness in early May. Its plans were disrupted when the White House approved Gen McKenzie's request in early May that the carrier cut short its time in the Mediterranean and sail swiftly to the Arabian Sea.

"It is my assessment that if we had not reinforced, it is entirely likely that an attack would have taken place by now," Gen McKenzie said.

Gen McKenzie said the carrier made an important difference.

"We believe they are recalculating. They have to take this into account as they think about various actions that they might take. So we think this is having a very good stabilising effect," he said.

"They are looking hard at the carrier because they know we are looking hard at them," Gen McKenzie added.

He said earlier in the week that he had not ruled out requesting additional defensive forces to bolster the deterrence of Iran, whose economy is being squeezed hard by US sanctions after President Donald Trump pulled America out last year from the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers.

The US already announced plans to send 900 additional troops to the Middle East and extend the stay of 600 more; tens of thousands of US soldiers also are stationed across the region.

Iran's influential Revolutionary Guard said it does not fear a war with the US and asserted that America's military might has not grown in power in recent years. "The enemy is not more powerful than before," Guard spokesman, Gen Ramazan Sharif, said in late May.

The US has accused Iran of being behind a string of recent incidents, including what officials allege was the sabotage of oil tankers off the coast of the UAE.

Gen McKenzie spent two days aboard the Abraham Lincoln to confer with naval commanders, observe both daytime and night-time flight operations and to thank crew members.

"I am the reason you are here," the general said in an all-hands announcement to the nearly 6,000 personnel on the Abraham Lincoln on Friday night shortly after he flew aboard by Navy helicopter from Oman.

"I requested this ship because of ongoing tensions with Iran," he said. "And nothing says you're interested in somebody like 90,000 tons of aircraft carrier and everything that comes with it. Our intent by bringing you here was to stabilise the situation and let Iran know that now is not the time to do something goofy."

Gen McKenzie also requested, and received, four Air Force long-range B-52 bombers. They were in the region 51 hours after being summoned and were flying missions three days later. They are now operating from Al Udeid airbase in Qatar. There had been no US bomber presence in the Gulf region since late February.

In an interview on Friday after speaking with B-52 pilots at Al Udeid, Gen McKenzie said it was hard to know whether that gap in a bomber presence had emboldened the Iranians.

"Cumulatively, the fact that we had drawn down in [the Middle East] may have had an effect on Iranian behaviour," he said. "We do know that bringing stuff back in seems to have had an effect on their behaviour," noting that there have been no Iranian attacks on US forces.

On Saturday aboard the Abraham Lincoln, Gen McKenzie was asked whether there have been any incidents between Iranian and American naval force in recent weeks.

"No, actually I think things are pretty quiet right now," he said.

Updated: June 9, 2019 02:50 PM


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