Spencer Ackerman – Wired News January 12, 2012
How’s this for timing: by accident of Navy schedules, the U.S. military now has two aircraft carrier battle groups near Iran’s shores, with a third on her way, right as a bomb killed an Iranian nuclear scientist and Iran threatens to close off a key waterway. But while there was just one carrier in the region for weeks, the Pentagon insists that its ship movements aren’t a response to Tehran’s recent bellicosity.
The U.S.S. Carl Vinson has linked up with the Navy’s Fifth Fleet, and is somewhere in the northern Arabian Sea. It’ll replace the U.S.S. John C. Stennis, which recently sailed out of the Strait of Hormuz, the water lane through which 20 percent of the world’s oil passes — and which Iran is rattling its saber about closing to protest new sanctions.
That means that during this latest period of tension with Iran, the U.S. military has two aircraft carrier battle groups in the region, the Vinson and the Stennis, neither of which is actually in the Arabian Gulf at this point. And on her way is the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, the Navy confirms, which is sailing from the Pacific to join with the Stennis. But it’s unclear how soon the Stennis will depart the region, as it’s scheduled to do — meaning there could, however briefly, be three carrier groups near Iran.
Typically, there are two carrier battle groups in the area. (U.S. Central Command’s official naval posture is to have an average of 1.7 battle groups in the region annually.) It just so happened that the Stennis was the only one nearby when the Iranians began making threats about the strategically vital strait. The deployments of both the Vinson and the Lincoln have been in the works for months.
“I don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that we’re somehow zorching [speeding] two carriers over to there because we’re concerned with what happened today in Iran,” said Navy Capt. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman. “This is just prudent force posture requirements set by the combatant commander.”
Even if the arrival of both carriers (and the departure of the Stennis) is merely a return to the typical naval posture in the region, it still comes at a tense time. A bomb killed an Iranian nuclear scientist, Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, in Tehran on Wednesday, the latest of several unexplained lethal attacks on the scientists believed to be working on an Iranian bomb. State-controlled media reported that the bomb was attached magnetically to the scientist’s car by a man on a motorcycle. Iran’s PressTV put out the video above, ostensibly showing the aftermath of the blast.
The U.S. military “played no role whatsoever” in Roshan’s killing, Kirby’s fellow Pentagon spokesman, George Little, told reporters Wednesday. Little said that the U.S. sought to “lower the temperature” on tensions with Iran “and we think that things have calmed down a bit in recent days.”
Whether Iran will consider the arrival of two carriers a mere return to the normal U.S. presence in the region is a different story. An Iranian general already threatened the Stennis on Jan. 3, after it sailed through the strait, saying he would “warn [the U.S.] over their return of this carrier to the Persian Gulf because we are not in the habit of warning more than once.” Iran has already blamed the U.S. and Israel for Roshan’s death.
And at some point, another Navy ship will pass through the strait to sail through the Gulf. “We routinely operate our ships — all of our ships, all of our types of ships — inside the Arabian Gulf and that would continue,” Kirby said, declining to specify when. You can bet that the Navy will be holding its breath when one of its carriers moves through the strait.