By William Tucker
Over the past few months the U.S. military has placed numerous assets across the Persian Gulf region. Among the deployments are the regular positioning of two aircraft carriers, a doubling of minesweeping vessels, new missile systems, and now the deployment of F-22 and F-15C fighter aircraft to the Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates. The announcement of the F-22 deployment set off a firestorm of media speculation over the possibility of a U.S. strike against Iran’s nuclear program. Having two carriers on station, with support from U.S. Air Force fighter wings in the region, would allow for 24 hour operations against targets in Iran. Keep in mind, however, that the current assets are more representative of a minimal deployment as opposed to the actual assets needed to ensure a successful operation. The U.S. would likely move two additional aircraft carriers to the region along with associated strike groups to support air operations in Iran. First and foremost would be SEAD (suppression of enemy air defense) operations designed to solidify U.S. air superiority over Iranian skies. While the move of the F-22’s and F-15C’s to UAE is certainly provocative, it hardly encompasses the totality of assets needed to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. Furthermore, Iran’s nuclear facilities may not be the likely target. Fixed facilities can be rebuilt in short order, but targeting a nation’s government and military is a far more effective method of changing behavior.
This deployment appears to represent a two-prong approach by Washington to meet the security needs of the Persian Gulf region. First, Iran is under severe sanctions and may, if Tehran feel’s sufficiently threatened, strike first. Likely areas for an Iranian first strike could be the Strait of Hormuz, which has been discussed here before, or the Shatt al-Arab Waterway located on the southern border between Iraq and Iran. Having military assets in the region, albeit in the form of a smaller deployment, may serve to be dissuasive enough to Iranian intentions. Secondly, the Gulf States have privately, and sometimes publicly, expressed deep concern over the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. The deployment of these assets are most likely Washington’s way of showing its continued commitment to its allies in the region. While the Gulf States have been on an unprecedented military spending spree, their militaries are not necessarily the largest or most capable. Purchasing sophisticated military equipment from the U.S. may help with these shortcomings, but it is not a solution to an institutional problem. The presence of U.S. forces helps balance this dynamic by offsetting indigenous weaknesses.
From Washington’s point of view, policy options for dealing with Iran and its nuclear program are difficult. Adding to the complexity is the amount of moving parts that have manifested over the past year. The Arab Spring uprisings, the increasing influence of al-Qaeda, and the continued instability in Iraq have all complicated the U.S. response to the region as a whole and to Iran in particular. Regional powers such as Russia and China have a strong incentive to keep the U.S. focused on the Middle East as well. With Washington occupied by Tehran, Moscow is free to work in central Europe, while China can pursue its interests in the South China Sea. Thus, they will do everything in their power to complicate the strategic picture in the Middle East. The U.S. understands this and is looking for ways to reassure allies without over-committing to a single region. The F-22 deployment is just one such manifestation of this approach.