Although Tehran achieved its long ambition with the departure last week of the last US carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, remaining in Gulf waters, Iran remained suspicious of Washington’s intentions – especially when it happened shortly after the announcement that the USS Harry Truman’s departure was delayed by US defense spending cuts.
A decade ago, the United States maintained seven aircraft carriers with strike groups in Persian Gulf waters on hand for the invasion of Iraq.
None are left.
Iran should therefore feel safe. However, military strategists tend to dig for ulterior motives behind any enemy action. So the disappearance of the proudest vessels of the US Navy from its waters is read by some in Tehran as meaning just the opposite to what it seems, a feint behind which Washington is in fact getting ready to attack Iran very soon, or at least back an imminent Israeli strike on its nuclear facilities.
Tehran is not convinced that war has receded
Those Iranian pessimists find support for their view in a number of arguments:
1. The withdrawal of the aircraft carriers from the Gulf strengthens rather than refuting the assumption of a coming war, they suspect because, if hostilities do erupt, US military chiefs would want to save those high-profile vessels from being trapped in the narrow Persian Gulf, at the mercy of Iranian sea-to-sea missiles and explosive speedboats and unable to maneuver to safety from reprisals.
2. The absence of these mammoth targets for retaliation close by does not remove the threat of attack, it is said in Tehran. It will simply force Iran to make the extra effort and assume the added risk of going after US military and naval facilities based in Gulf countries.
Tehran would face hard decisions over which of its neighbors to attack first, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Dubai or even Jordan.
In this regard, Iranian strategists note that Washington has made no secret of its deployment of 60 US Air Force fighter-bombers at Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar and Camp Arifijan in Kuwait – equal to the number of warplanes sitting on the decks of the absentee Ronald Reagan.
What is meant by a one-night Israeli operation?
Fighter-bomber jets taking off from dry land do not have the same operational flexibility as aircraft taking off from, and landing on, floating ship’s decks. However, the Obama administration was clearly anxious to demonstrate to its allies in Riyadh, Qatar, Dubai and the rest of the Gulf that US air power in their vicinity has not been reduced and the carriers’ exit has not changed US operational capabilities.
Those allies do not appear to be convinced.
3. Tehran has never given much credence to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's declared deadline of late spring-early summer 2013 for striking the Iranian nuclear program.
But they are scratching their heads over former Israeli military intelligence chief Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin’s comment in the last week of February that Israel could eliminate Iran’s nuclear program in a one-night operation.
They are trying to puzzle out what he meant. Iranian strategists don’t see how Israel could achieve this complicated feat in a day – least of all in a single dark night.
Still, Tehran is working on its response in case the withdrawal of US carriers leaves the field open for an Israeli attack. Decisions must be made on the nature and scope of that response. Should it come in the form of a massive ballistic missile attack or a more moderate reprisal? And can the Lebanese Shiite Hizballah be pressed into proxy action in the light of the complicated situation in Syria?