Three weeks after Tehran threatened action against any US aircraft carrier entering the Strait of Hormuz, Washington made two moves: US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta disclosed Sunday, Jan. 22, that the USS Enterprise Carrier Strike Group would steam through the strategic strait in March; a few hours later, the US Navy sent the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier through the strategic strait without incident, accompanied by British and French warships.
debkafile: Defusing the Hormuz crisis set the scene for resumed nuclear negotiations leading up to which several messages were exchanged through back channels between the Obama administration and Tehran in recent weeks – amid Israeli preparations to strike Iran's nuclear facilities.
These developments deepened the breach between the US and Israel. Two days earlier, on Friday, Jan. 20, Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint US Chiefs of Staff, visited Israel and with Israeli leaders emphasized the cooperation between Washington and Jerusalem on the Iranian threat. The Netanyahu government complained that action against Iran had been postponed for years on one pretext on another, and the same thing was happening to effective sanctions against Iran's oil exports and central bank. Israel was therefore compelled to exercise its military option against the mortal peril of a nuclear Iran, said the Israeli prime minister, before it was too late.
Then Sunday, Jan. 22, Defense Secretary Panetta stood in a hangar of the Enterprise clad in the uniform of a ship's crewman and told an audience of 1,700 personnel that the carrier would be sent to Hormuz in March. His statement was a red herring. A few hours later, the Abraham Lincoln was already through.
But what he said on the Enterprise was this: "That's what this carrier is all about. That's the reason we maintain a presence in the Middle East… We want them to know that we are fully prepared to deal with any contingency and it's better for them to try to deal with us through diplomacy."
debkafile's Washington sources note that Panetta was the first high-ranking administration official to give Tehran an ultimatum: Accept the American offer to negotiate terms for halting your nuclear weapon program, or face up to America's mighty fleet of American aircraft carriers. "Our view is that the carriers, because of their presence, because of the power they represent, are a very important part of our ability to maintain power projection both in the Pacific and in the Middle East," said the defense secretary.
However, behind this show of strength, Washington was actively preparing to sit down and talk.
Saturday, Jan. 21, the Washington Post disclosed that Obama had sent a special emissary to Tehran with an oral message proposing that Iran join the United States for resumed nuclear negotiations.
The emissary was not named – although there was some speculation that Turkish Foreign Minister was chosen for the mission – nor was Iran's reply revealed.
According to the WP, its content was as follows: The United States and the international community have a strong interest in the free flow of commerce and freedom of navigation in all international waterways… Since taking office, the president has made it clear that he is willing to engage constructively and seriously with Iran about its nuclear program.
Also on Saturday, Iran's Revolutionary Guards stated it considered the likely return of US warships to the Gulf part of its routine activity. They were not climbing down from their original threat. The statement came only after Tehran saw the USS Stennis, the object of threat, exiting the Gulf Friday, Jan. 20, and decided it was the Americans who had backed down.
Panetta's comments Sunday aimed at correcting that impression and making it very clear to Tehran that although the Stennis was gone, the Abraham Lincoln was there and the Enterprise was coming "fully prepared to deal with any contingency."