This is not an alarmist report intended to attract readers. An under-reported situation is developing in the Gulf of Oman that has terrible potential for an all-out war between the U.S. and Iran.
On May 12th, 2019, four oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, at least one carrying oil destined for the U.S., were damaged by magnetic mines. (see story Did Iran Attack an Oil Tanker Bound for the U.S.?)
Though Iran denied responsibility, the United States has announced it believes that Iran or an Iranian backed group was responsible for the attack.
The timing of the attacks alone seem to point to Iran as the U.S. has been ramping up pressure on the nation after Iranian officials announced on May 9th it would resume high level uranium enrichment (potentially weapons grade) within 60 days if, according to NPR, “world powers don't shield it from U.S. sanctions, under the terms of the 2015 nuclear agreement.”
That agreement, which was initiated by the Obama administration, was widely applauded by global leaders, and widely criticized by Republicans. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which President Trump called "a horrible one-sided deal," was abandoned by the U.S. last year. Sanctions include a ban on Iranian oil exports which had topped 1 million barrels a day. As that flow has all but stopped, the Iranian economy is suffering. According to Al Jazeera, inflation hit 40% earlier this year.
Iran’s threat to resume its nuclear enrichment activities came exactly one year after the Trump administration pulled out of the JCPOA deal.
The same day of the Iranian announcement, as reported by Time magazine, a fleet of U.S. Navy vessels were deployed to the Gulf of Oman in what the Navy called an “expedited transit”. However, this deployment was a coincidence to Iran’s announcement, though certainly related, as its launching was prompted by a tip from Israeli intelligence that indicated Iran was preparing an assault on U.S. and allied forces in Iraq and Syria. That evidence, in part, is believed to be in the form of photos showing small Iranian boats in the Persian Gulf outfitted with guided missiles, the Hill.com reported.
Show of Force
Known as ”Carrier Strike Group 9” (aka the Lincoln Strike Group), the fleet is led by the Nimitz-class carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln and as many as four destroyers, four guided missile cruisers, five fighter squadrons (some 100 aircraft), several B-52 strategic bombers, and a host of support vessels. According to John Bolton, National Security Advisor, the deployment was intended “to send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime” according to Time Magazine.
The strike group has already arrived in the Gulf of Oman where it joins, according to the U.S. Navy News (usni.org), the Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) which includes the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). The ARG is led by the “Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge” and includes 4,500 sailors.
Is War Inevitable?
According the New York Times, the administration is preparing for war. Yet CNN reported on May 17th that the President has explicated state he does not want wat and is irritated with Bolton’s rhetoric. The same day as the Iranian announcement, Trump called did call a meeting of his top national security advisors calling on Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan to present a military plan in the event of an Iranian attack on U.S. forces in the middle East. The Times reports that though 120,000 troops could be deployed in such an event, the outlined plan does not call for a land invasion of Iran.
Though preparation does not necessarily indicate a pending conflict, a determination of culpability for the attacks in the Gulf of Oman and/or any further aggression tied to Iran may indeed lead to a military response. In Trump’s typical vague yet telling fashion, the President has indicated that, “We’ll see what happens with Iran. If they do anything, it would be a very bad mistake.”
The Iranian situation poses a unique challenge to the Trump administration. On the one hand, his policy of “maximum pressure” virtually demands military action against a nation that threatens U.S. interests. On the other hand, the administration’s close relationship with the Russian government, who is tightly allied with Iran, may pre-empt any military action.
On Wednesday, May 15th, the U.S. Military announced that the threat level in the Middle East had been raised, prompting the ordering of non-emergency U.S. embassy staff in Baghdad, Iraq, to leave the country as soon as possible. Germany and the Netherlands have suspended its training of Iraqi soldiers.
Despite these cautionary actions, the administration is instant that it is not seeking a war. On the 13th, during a meeting with the Russians, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated flatly that the U.S. "fundamentally" did not seek a conflict with Iran according to BBC News. The Iranian religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said the same. However, his statement included a contradictory prayer: "God willing we will pass this difficult period with glory and our heads held high, and defeat the enemy."
On May 19th, a rocket landed less than a mile from the U.S. Embassy in Bagdhad. As it is believed the rocket was fired from east Baghdad, populated by Iranian backed Shiite militias, President Trump issued a dire warning, tweeting “"If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!"