Carrier strike group deployment offers opportunity to sharpen Iran policy

Carrier strike group deployment offers opportunity to sharpen Iran policy
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In a show of force against the Islamic Republic of Iran, the U.S. is deploying a carrier strike group and bomber squadron to the Middle East. The move comes as a response to what National Security Advisor John BoltonJohn Robert BoltonTensions with Iran reach new stage over uranium threat Tensions with Iran reach new stage over uranium threat The Hill's Morning Report - Is US weighing military action against Iran? MORE termed “escalatory indications and warnings” by Iran against American interests. It also represents the latest step in Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran, which marks its one-year anniversary on May 8. As the policy enters its second year, Washington will need to reinforce its presence in the region to both underscore deterrence and signal resolve.

The deployment of a carrier strike group to the region offers the U.S. a chance to do exactly that.

While some may see the announcement as a new drift toward war, in actuality, the deployment increases the prospects for genuine diplomacy — the best hope for avoiding conflict.

Currently, America’s military posture in the Persian Gulf supports at least four broad goals: 1) it provides the U.S. with in-theater basing to conduct operations, 2) it ensures the free-flow of energy exports vital to the international economy, 3) it deters Iranian aggression and, 4) it reassures and defends key allies and partners. An optimal U.S. force presence also supports coercive diplomacy. Borrowing from U.S. Ambassador to Russia, Jon Huntsman Jr., America’s aircraft carriers “represent 100,000 tons of international diplomacy.”

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The Nimitz-class carrier tasked with the mission, the USS Abraham Lincoln, is the same carrier the U.S. sent through the Strait of Hormuz in January 2012 on a “routine” deployment that also served to check Iranian threats to close the Strait — through which roughly 30 percent of the world’s seaborne oil trade transits. Reportedly, in addition to the Nimitz-class carrier, the new carrier strike group contains a missile cruiser, several destroyers, and a carrier air wing composed of rotary and fixed wing aircraft such as F/A-18 fighter jets, electronic warfare and tactical early warning aircraft, and navy helicopters.

The U.S. was unable to deploy an aircraft carrier to the Middle East for much of last year.  During key junctures in the U.S.-Iran standoff in 2018, such as the withdrawal from the nuclear deal in May or the reimposition of oil sanctions in November, the purported “100,000 tons of international diplomacy” was missing in action. The absence of a carrier was explicitly mentioned by the former CENTCOM Commander in April 2019 testimony before Congress.

The addition of these assets to the U.S. force structure in the region is a welcome development as Washington seeks to counter Iranian influence and thwart operations by Iran and its proxies in the Middle East.

The timing of the announcement, just days before the anniversary of the U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, is also important. Currently, Iran remains engaged in a test of wills with the Trump administration, hoping it can outlast Washington’s pressure policy. While the maximum pressure campaign has relied primarily on economic tools to both coerce and punish Tehran, the deployment could signal the beginning of a change in its approach. Iran has publicly derided the carrier deployment perhaps because they understand the increased U.S. military footprint in the region will present the regime with new realities — making Tehran think twice about escalation.

Iran will continue to utilize asymmetric or “gray zone” tactics as long as it believes it can do so with relative impunity. However, when confronted with strength, Iran has often backed-down. Indeed, under the Trump administration, naval harassment of American vessels by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is reportedly decreasing. To explain its de-escalation to a domestic audience, the regime has twisted itself into rhetorical knots.

Ultimately, Washington’s deployment of a carrier strike group offers an opportunity to strengthen its Iran policy and make the case for tough diplomacy. As America re-orders its military priorities to focus on “great power competition,” the move signals that the Persian Gulf remains an utmost national security interest, as does checking Iranian aggression.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a Senior Fellow focusing on Iran at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (@FDD), where he contributes to its Center on Military and Political Power (@FDD_CMPP). Bradley Bowman is former Senate staffer who served as an Army officer and taught at West Point. He now serves as Senior Director for CMPP at FDD.