US car­rier in Per­sian Gulf re­gion sends sig­nal to Iran

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - News - BY ROBERT BURNS As­so­ci­ated Press

ABOARD THE USS ABRA­HAM LINCOLN

Un­der a starry sky, U.S. Navy fighter jets cat­a­pulted off the air­craft car­rier’s deck and flew north over the dark­ened wa­ters of the north­ern Ara­bian Sea, an un­mis­taken sig­nal to Iran that the fore­most sym­bol of the Amer­i­can mil­i­tary’s global reach is back in its neigh­bor­hood, 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 cen­ter­piece of the Pen­tagon’s re­sponse to what it calls Ira­nian threats to at­tack U.S. forces or com­mer­cial ship­ping in the Per­sian Gulf re­gion. In re­cent years, there has been no reg­u­lar U.S. air­craft car­rier pres­ence in the Mid­dle East.

U.S. of­fi­cials have said that signs of height­ened Ira­nian prepa­ra­tions to strike U.S. and other tar­gets in the wa­ters off Iran as well as in Iraq and Ye­men in late April emerged shortly af­ter the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion an­nounced it was clamp­ing down fur­ther on Iran’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 Lincoln was steam­ing in in­ter­na­tional wa­ters east of Oman and about 200 miles from Iran’s south­ern coast­line. One month af­ter its ar­rival in the re­gion, the Lincoln has not en­tered the Per­sian Gulf, and it’s not ap­par­ent that it will. The USS Gon­za­lez, a de­stroyer that is part of the Lincoln strike group, is op­er­at­ing in the Gulf.

Rear Adm. John F. G. Wade, com­man­der of the Lincoln strike group, said Iran’s naval forces have 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 ma­neu­ver­abil­ity or acted in a way which re­quired us to take de­fen­sive mea­sures.”

The 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 U.S. “pres­ence” that Ma­rine Gen. Frank McKenzie, the head of Cen­tral Com­mand, said 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 U.S. forces in Iraq. Two other of­fi­cials, speak­ing on con­di­tion of anonymity to discuss sensitive de­tails, said Iran was at a high state of readiness in early May with its ships, sub­marines, sur­face-to-air mis­siles and drone air­craft.

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

In an in­ter­view on the bridge, or com­mand sta­tion, of the Lincoln with re­porters who are trav­el­ing with him through­out the Gulf re­gion, McKenzie said the car­rier has 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 god sta­bi­liz­ing ef­fect,” he said.

“They are look­ing hard at the car­rier be­cause they know we are look­ing hard at them,” 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 U.S. sanc­tions af­ter Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump pulled the U.S. last year from the 2015 nu­clear deal be­tween Tehran and world pow­ers. The U.S. al­ready has an­nounced plans to send 900 ad­di­tional troops to the Mideast and ex­tend the stay of 600 more as tens of thou­sands of oth­ers also are on the ground across the re­gion.

Iran’s in­flu­en­tial Revo­lu­tion­ary Guard has said it doesn’t fear a pos­si­ble war with the U.S. and as­serted that Amer­ica’s mil­i­tary might has not grown in power in re­cent years. “The enemy is not more pow­er­ful than be­fore,” the Guard spokesman, Gen. Ra­mazan Sharif, said in late May.

The U.S. has ac­cused Iran of be­ing be­hind a string of re­cent in­ci­dents, in­clud­ing what of­fi­cials al­lege was sab­o­tage of oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emi­rates.

McKenzie spent two days aboard the Lincoln to con­fer with naval com­man­ders, ob­serve both day­time and night­time flight op­er­a­tions, and to thank crew mem­bers. Their de­ploy­ment plans were dis­rupted when the White House ap­proved McKenzie’s re­quest in early May that the Lincoln cut short its time in the Mediter­ranean Sea and sail swiftly to the Ara­bian Sea.

“I am the rea­son you are here,” the gen­eral said in an all-hands an­nounce­ment to the nearly 6,000 per­son­nel on the Lincoln 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 sta­bi­lize the sit­u­a­tion and let Iran know that now is not the time to do some­thing goofy.”

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 air base in Qatar. There had been no U.S. bomber pres­ence in the Gulf re­gion since late Fe­bru­ary.

ROBERT BURNS AP

Ma­rine Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand, con­fers with an Air Force of­fi­cer be­low the bomb bay of a B-52 bomber on Fri­day at al-Udeid air base in Qatar.

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