Watching US naval might massing opposite their shores is getting Iran’s rulers jumpy. They can’t be sure that the Bush administration will not decide to pounce for a surprise attack before America’s mid-term elections on Nov. 11.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Tehran report their nerves were stretched further Thursday, Oct. 26, when an Iranian Air Force Orion spy plane spotted yet another American carrier, the USS Boxer, heading for the Persian Gulf, complete with battleship escort as well as Harrier 2 warplanes and Sea Hawk helicopters on its deck.
Boxer is the fourth US carrier to be deployed opposite Iran in the last few weeks, alongside USS Iwo Jima, USS Enterprise and USS Eisenhower. According to the intelligence reaching Iran, Boxer and its escorts are to be positioned strategically in the Oman Sea near the Straits of Hormuz, the neck of the Persian Gulf bottle. Iran also believes that their arrival does not complete the menacing US naval deployment around its shores. They have learned that three more aircraft carriers are still due: USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63) from the Philippine Sea, USS Nimitz (CVN 68) and USS Ronald Reagan – both from the Pacific Ocean.
The Iranians are disturbed by Washington’s silence about the last two arrivals – Iwo Jima and Boxer – unlike the Eisenhower, which was fan-fared by the media. Not only did the Americans clam up, but they planted a red herring in the official military journal Stars and Stripes, reporting that the Boxer Task Force was cruising in the China Sea where its crew had even thrown a party on deck.
Far from partying, the Marines aboard the Boxer group, some of them members of the Navy Seals unit, are reported to have spent the last months in special training for attacks on oil installations and sea rigs. Boxer departed Singapore on Oct. 16 with 840 Marine commandoes aboard.
The Iranian war planners also estimate that the American task force will kick off its assault mission against Iran by capturing the Abu Mussa Island, where Iran has massed a large military force made up mainly of Revolutionary Guards personnel, who are scattered in small military anchorages built on the island for Iranian military operations in the Persian Gulf.
An extremist victory would be the signal for attack
These concerns are keeping supreme ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in tight consultation with his advisers while the commanders of the military and Revolutionary Guards commanders burn the midnight oil in intensive, round-the-clock conferences on ways and means of fending off the encroaching danger.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources do not corroborate or contradict the intelligence ruffling feathers in Tehran about American intentions. But the Iranians are sufficiently impressed by its credibility to align their forces for defense against assault; war tensions in the Iranian capital and across the Arabian Gulf can be cut with a knife.
Our Washington and Gulf sources attest to the ongoing build-up of US naval, air and marine might Iran in the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea to a level commensurate with a decision to strike Iran. (See attached active map – http://debka-net-weekly.com/pics/map2/AttackOnIran08.html). But they are convinced that the Bush administration would rather hold off until it sees how the December 15 election for the Iranian regime’s key body, the Council of Experts, turns out. This arcane body of 87 men, a vital cog of Iran’s ruling machinery, is little known in the West. However one of its principal functions is to choose Iran’s next supreme ruler should Ali Khamenei be forced to retire – whether by old age, ill health or some other form of incapacity.
In private conversations, key figures of the Bush administration dealing with Iran say they are waiting to see who comes out ahead in the coming vote. If the winners are the extremist faction headed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the fanatical cleric Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, both fervent espousers of a race to a nuclear weapon, then there will be little point in waiting any longer for diplomacy to produce an accommodation. To halt the Islamic Republic’s dash for a nuclear weapon, the only remaining option will be military.
In the next article, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iranian experts survey in detail the state of play in Tehran ahead of this pivotal vote and estimate the chances of the Mesbah-Yazdi faction walking off with victory. Official sources in Washington prefer to believe that Ali Khamenei holds the balance. If he directs his supporters to vote for the extremists – in the same way as he ordered them to get Ahmadinejad elected president 14 months ago – it will mean that the supreme ruler has opted for war.
But if he tells his people to choose the more pragmatic former president Hashem Rafsanjani, it will mean that Khamenei is leaving a crack in the door for a negotiated way out of the impasse on Iran’s nuclear program.
For now, the Persian Gulf region is building up into a powder keg with both sides wracking their brains to second guess the other, before a misstep or a miscalculation sparks an unforeseen conflagration.