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US carrier enters Gulf to spite Iran.

Flanked by British and French warships, the US aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln sailed through the Strait of Hormuz Sunday and into the Persian Gulf in what was a clear effort by the three countries to stick a finger in the eye of the Islamic Republic.

The timing of the move and the fact that it was a joint British-French-American demonstration came as a surprise.

Everyone knew that eventually a US carrier would sail back into the Persian Gulf to reply to Iranian warnings not to do so. But the fact that the Lincoln, with up to 80 aircraft on board, sailed through the strait only three weeks after the last carrier left made baldly clear to the world that the United States was calling Iran's bluff and daring it to try anything.


The sailing was a significant upgrading of symbolic American hostility for the Islamic Republic--and the British and French governments signed up for that show of hostility by sending their ships along as well.

To some extent it demonstrates soaring disgust in the West for the Islamic Republic's policies. Perhaps most significantly, it shows the Obama Administration's loss of patience with Iran. Obama had lessened the level of rhetoric used with the Islamic Republic. There was no more talk of a "rogue" regime after Obama took office. Administration officials generally just ignored rhetoric from Tehran.

The dispatch of the Abraham Lincoln into the Persian Gulf changes all that and is nothing less than a slap to the face of the authorities in Tehran.

The immediate issue, however, has nothing to do with Iran's nuclear program or ballistic missiles. The issue is the freedom of the seas, which has been a core concern of US foreign policy ever since the Administration of George Washington.

The latest set-to with Tehran began late last month when the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis sailed out of the Persian Gulf. Days later, Iranian Ground Forces Commander Gen. Ataollah Salehi pounded his chest. "I recommend and emphasize to the American carrier not to return to the Persian Gulf," he said. "We are not in the habit of warning more than once."

The rhetoric drew immediate attention in Washington. It was a direct threat to the principle of freedom of the seas, not something the United States has ever ignored in its quarter-millennium of existence.

But the United States refused to engage in a "war of words" with Tehran. Officials made clear that General Salehi's remarks were unacceptable, but there was no saber-rattling. Officials said another carrier would enter the Persian Gulf eventually. But the implication was that that might be months away.

Now it appears that Washington began making plans right away for a return, contacting its closest allies to get their reading and then feeling out the chances for a joint response.

The USS Abraham Lincoln sailed from the Pacific and arrived in the Arabian Sea last week. It appears to have paused just long enough to join up with the British ship HMS Argyll and a French vessel that has not yet been named and then sailed through the strait Sunday, accompanied also by a US cruiser and two destroyers.

It wasn't known immediately when last a British or French ship sailed as part of a US Navy carrier group. It may never have happened before.

The day before that carrier group entered the strait, the Islamic Republic publicly retreated from of Gen. Salehi's hostile rhetoric about carriers in the strait.

Gen. Hossain Salami, deputy commander of the Pasdaran, was quoted Saturday by the state news agency as saying, "US warships and military forces have been in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East region for many years and their decision in relation to the dispatch of a new warship is not a new issue and it should not be interpreted as part of their permanent presence."

The language was no clearer in the original Farsi than in translation. Salami probably did not want to be too clear with the Iranian public that the regime was backtracking from its tough talk of only three weeks earlier.

The language that there was nothing new about the US presence neatly ignored the fact that the US Navy now has two carriers off Iran for the first time since the United States invaded Iraq in 2003.

The Iranian military prides itself on keeping track of US naval movements in the region. It flies tracker planes off its coasts every day to pinpoint US ships. Presumably, it saw the US carrier group with the addition of the French and British warships headed straight for the strait on Friday and realized immediately that it was being challenged by the three Western allies.

The Islamic Republic then blinked.

One of the curiosities of this exchange is that the original wild rhetoric of last month came not from the Pasdaran but from the commander of the regular Army, not a common source of rhetoric. Then the rapid backpedaling of Saturday came from a very senior Pasdar officer, albeit not from one of the most senior Pasdar officers. Some suspected Gen. Salami was ordered to make the statement because he could be sacrificed if there was a strong reaction from ultra-conservatives in the regime.

Salami's remarks received very little attention in the Iranian media; it wasn't known if the censors ordered that the statement be downplayed, but it is not uncommon for such directives to be issued.

As to why the regime backed away from its threatening rhetoric of three weeks earlier, Robert Smith, a consultant at Facts Global Energy suggested: "Iran's leadership has a strong sense of self-preservation. The comments can likely be interpreted as a sign of cooler heads prevailing."

It is not known how long the Abraham Lincoln will be inside the Persian Gulf. There isn't anything for it to do there but show the flag (and give a figurative finger to the Islamic Republic). Since US troops withdrew from Iraq last month, carrier aircraft are no longer flying over Iraq. They do fly missions from the Arabian Sea over Pakistan to Afghanistan. But the Lincoln is to far away from that corridor to fly such missions.

Some might speculate that the Lincoln was dispatched to prepare to attack Iran. But in a time of actual warfare, the US Navy would not want a carrier inside the Persian Gulf. It would be too vulnerable to attacks by Iranian missiles and swarming gunboats. In the event of war with Iran, the US Navy would want its carriers well out in the Arabian Sea where they could launch planes against Iran but at the same time enjoy a defense in depth.

In that sense, the dispatch of the carrier to the Persian Gulf is a guarantee that the United States will not be attacking Iran in the near term.

The Islamic Republic seemed not to understand the rhetorical hole it fell into with its demand that no US carrier go through the Strait of Hormuz again. The issue dates back to the 1790s. The United States was very much a trading nation with a large merchant marine. The concept of the freedom of the seas was essential to the US ability to trade freely. The US Navy was founded in 1794 when that freedom was challenged by the Barbary pirates. Throughout history, whenever some country has told the US Navy that it cannot go "there" in international waters, the US Navy has always gone "there." During the Cold War, the Soviet Union objected to US warships sailing into the Black Sea. Because of that objection, the US Navy made a point of sending one warship into the Black Sea for a few days every year.

The demand that US carriers no longer enter the international waters of the Persian Gulf was notably made by an Iranian ground forces officers. Officers of the Iranian Navy and the maritime arm of the Pasdaran remained silent. Presumably, they knew better.

Oddly, the US Navy announcement about the Abraham Lincoln entering the Persian Gulf was routine and failed to make the point of defending freedom of the seas. It was left to Her Majesty's Royal Navy to make that point in its announcement, which said the flotilla was "transiting through the Strait of Hormuz to underline the unwavering international commitment to maintaining rights of passage under international law."
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Publication:Iran Times International (Washington, DC)
Geographic Code:7IRAN
Date:Jan 27, 2012
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