US-Iran, Israel-Gaza turn Mideast into a danger zone again

US-Iran, Israel-Gaza turn Mideast into a danger zone again
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Are there war clouds beginning to fill the skies of the Middle East? A tense ceasefire has just ended 48 hours of vicious fighting between Israel and Hamas forces in the Gaza Strip. And now an American carrier strike group is heading to the Persian Gulf, along with some U.S. Air Force bombers, to counter unspecified new activity by Iranian-aligned forces.

The Iranian activity was spotted on Friday and, by Sunday evening, the carrier, believed to be the USS Abraham Lincoln, and its escorts were heading to the Gulf. It is thought to be in the Mediterranean now, so must transit the Suez Canal and then the Red Sea, before skirting the coast of Yemen and Oman to reach the Strait of Hormuz.

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The New York Times quotes unnamed senior officials as saying there are “new concerns in waterways where Iranian maritime forces operate.” That sounds like the Strait of Hormuz, the comparatively narrow passage between the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean through which oil from the area reaches its markets in China, India and other Asian economies. Any interference with the flow of that oil would send the price rocketing even in the United States. (It also may mean the Bab-el-Mandeb, the strait between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, which abuts Yemen, where Iranian-backed Houthi forces control the capital Sanaa.)

In a statement, national security adviser John Bolton warned that the deployment was intended to send a “clear and unmistakable message that any attack on U.S. interests or those of our allies” would be met with “unrelenting force.”

Perhaps some details will be released in the coming days to answer the question, “What the hell is going on?” It may be a week before the Lincoln reaches the Gulf anyway. And if bombers are being deployed from bases in the United States, it will be several days before they arrive and become operational.

I have some insight into how the arriving reinforcements may be used. In 2012, I spent 24 hours visiting the Lincoln during an earlier deployment in the Gulf. I flew out from Bahrain to the ship, which was cruising up and down a rectangle of water 30 miles off the coast of Iran. Flight operations by F-18s were continuous, day and night, in a show of force that clearly was intended to impress Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran. It certainly impressed me.

Additionally, last year, I visited the al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar, from where a number of B-52s were operating against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria. The aircraft have been updated since the movie “Dr. Strangelove.” Rather than nukes, among the bombs in the bomb bay that I was allowed to stand in were low-explosive weapons designed to target a single room in a house.

There appears to be no connection between the events in Gaza and the sudden concern about the Gulf and Iran. Gaza erupted after Islamic Jihad gunmen sniped at Israeli soldiers, and Israel’s response was met by 600-plus Hamas rockets against Israeli civilian targets. Iran reportedly gives some support to Islamic Jihad, as well as Hamas, but it’s an awkward relationship not least because Iran is Shia Muslim and the Palestinian groups are Sunni.

When faced by overwhelming force, Tehran usually backs down from a confrontation, but still could want to make a point. Symbolically, it is important for a U.S. carrier to operate inside the Persian Gulf, though commanders like to avoid its confined space, made even smaller because the water on the southern side is comparatively shallow. For its part, Iranian forces, in this case, the recently-sanctioned Islamic Revolutionary Guards, always — repeat, always — make some small challenge to U.S. Navy ships transiting the Strait.

The American bombers heading towards the Gulf face another problem. Whether they fly from Qatar or a similar air base in the neighboring United Arab Emirates, they need to obtain permission from the host country for what they want to target. (That’s the advantage of an aircraft carrier — it is six-and-a-half acres of U.S. sovereign territory.)

Add the ingredients of concern about Iran’s adherence to nuclear restrictions, and Palestinian worries that they will be short-changed in President TrumpDonald John TrumpConway defends herself against Hatch Act allegations amid threat of subpoena How to defuse Gulf tensions and avoid war with Iran Trump says 'stubborn child' Fed 'blew it' by not cutting rates MORE’s forthcoming Middle East peace plan, and May could prove to be a dangerous month.

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Follow him on Twitter @shendersongulf.