The Obama administration has increased the U.S. military presence near Iran and is accelerating installation of antimissile systems in nearby countries, officials said Saturday, as the White House builds pressure for stern new sanctions against Tehran.
New air defense systems are being delivered to Persian Gulf countries, and specially-equipped cruisers – a linchpin of the U.S. missile defense system – are being deployed in the waters of the Persian Gulf, the officials said.
The moves are intended to reassure Gulf countries that they would be protected against possible offensive action from Tehran, which is under intensified international pressure to refrain from developing nuclear weapons.
U.S. officials stressed the defensive nature of the actions being taken throughout the region.
The partnership between the U.S. and Gulf countries, described by a senior U.S. official on Saturday, is likely to include early-warning radar systems and missile defenses that will be integrated with U.S. systems, including those on the cruisers and elsewhere.
The initiative involves the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait, four countries with close military ties to the U.S.
“Iran and President [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad have scared those on the west side of the Gulf right into our arms,” said the senior official.
U.S. officials also hope the moves will alleviate concerns about Iran within Israel, which has said it has the right to launch military strikes to prevent Iranian progress toward development of weapons.
The Obama administration has stepped up pressure on Iran to take part in talks aimed at reconciling its civilian nuclear efforts with international concerns that Tehran’s true goal is developing nuclear weapons.
A chief mission of top administration officials in recent weeks has been to build international support for intensified economic sanctions. The willingness of the Persian Gulf states to accept additional aid could help signal to countries opposed to the sanctions, such as China, that Iran poses concerns to areas besides the United States, Europe and Israel.
U.S. officials said the expanding partnership between U.S. and Persian Gulf countries is a direct result of the wariness of Gulf leaders concerning Ahmadinejad’s intentions and actions in the region.
President Obama took office last year vowing to negotiate with Iran, but hopes for talks faded last fall after a package of proposed accords withered under Iranian inaction.
In meetings last week in London, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton tried to solidify international support for harsher sanctions, and Obama warned in his State of the Union speech that diplomatic overtures to Iran would be combined with “consequences” if Tehran failed to cooperate.
Obama administration officials also have stressed their aversion to U.S. military action, and have taken strides to assure that their actions convey a protective posture.
In a speech to the Institute of the Study of War in Washington on Jan. 22, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, offered broad details of the expanded U.S.-Gulf partnerships. He said then that the measures were being driven by a fear of Iranian actions in the region.
In the speech, Petraeus said that two Patriot missile batteries had been deployed in each of four different countries, which he did not name, and that Aegis ballistic missile cruisers were now stationed full time in the Gulf.
Early-warning agreements between various countries in the region, Petraeus said, were enabling the U.S. to create a “common operational picture” for the region to counter the Iranian missile threat.
“Iran is clearly seen as a very serious threat by those on the other side of the Gulf front, and indeed, it has been a catalyst for the implementation of the architecture that we envision and have now been trying to implement,” Petraeus said.
Developing an integrated warning system across a broad geographic expanse could help U.S. forces to quickly shoot down an Iranian missile.
U.S. officials hope that the expansion of the early-warning system also has the effect of calming Israeli concerns about Iran; they believe a preemptive strike by Israel could provoke a war.
Officials from both the Bush and Obama administrations have told Israeli officials they do not need to launch a strike against Iran.
The Obama White House believes that time remains to continue a diplomatic approach to halt Iranian weapons systems.
In Iran, however, the latest moves are likely to serve as reminders of the 1988 incident in which a U.S. Aegis cruiser shot down a civilian Iranian airliner, killing nearly 300 people.
The antimissile systems probably will mean some additional U.S. troops in the region. Patriot missiles are usually deployed with at least a small contingent of U.S. military personnel.
The presence of additional forces should not be a major issue within the four countries accepting the stepped-up defenses. Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait all host major U.S. bases, and the government of the United Arab Emirates has a long-standing relationship with the American military.
U.S. officials also are working with allies in the Gulf to ensure freedom of navigation in the region. Arab countries worry that during a crisis, Iran could try to prevent their ships from traversing the Strait of Hormuz, cutting off their oil export business.
Obama administration officials also hope to head off an expanded nuclear arms race in the region. If Tehran acquires a nuclear weapon, or is seen as making progress toward acquiring one, wealthy Arab Gulf governments could seek their own weapons, a scenario Washington views as potentially volatile.