In an unusual statement for a national security adviser to make, John Bolton announced on Sunday night that an aircraft carrier strike group is being deployed as a warning to Iran:
In response to a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings, the United States is deploying the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and a bomber task force to the U.S. Central Command region to send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force. The United States is not seeking war with the Iranian regime, but we are fully prepared to respond to any attack, whether by proxy, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or regular Iranian forces.
This all sounds pretty alarming, but a couple of facts are worth keeping in mind. First, the White House probably did not actually decide to do this over the weekend. The Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group had already left in early April on what the Navy press release called a “regularly scheduled deployment.” As Rand Corp. analyst Becca Wasser tweets, “chances are this deployment has been long-planned. [White House] message is piggybacking on planned ops to make a point.” (Hopefully the ships are at least headed in the right direction this time.)
Second, it’s not clear what “troubling and escalatory indications” Bolton is referring to. According to the New York Times, citing an American military official, “as of late Friday, military analysts were not tracking any new, imminent or clearly defined Iranian or Iranian-backed threats against Americans in Iraq or the region.”
Update, May 6, 2019: U.S. Officials are now saying, according to CNN, that the move was ordered in response to “serious and credible” intelligence suggesting a threat to U.S. forces in Syria, Iraq, and at sea from Iranian forces and proxies.
So, there’s no sign that anything actually “happened” over the weekend. Iran didn’t do anything out of the ordinary, that we know of, and neither did the United States. But the escalating rhetoric could still be worrisome.
Bolton’s latest rhetorical volley follows a series of moves by the Trump administration to dial up the pressure on Tehran, including designating the regime’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization and ending sanctions waivers for countries importing Iranian oil.
Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, warned of unspecified “consequences” in response.
Iranian officials have suggested several times in recent weeks that they could retaliate by shutting down the Strait of Hormuz, the crucial waterway through which 20 percent of the world’s oil flows, a move that would cause an immediate spike in global oil prices and significantly raise the risk of armed conflict. Iran has threatened to do this several times over the years and has never followed through, but the latest signals from Tehran may have been what prompted Bolton’s missive.
There have also been reports that Iran could announce later this week that it is withdrawing from at least some of its commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal. This week will mark one year since the U.S. withdrew from the deal.
Bolton, who has given paid speeches to the controversial Iranian opposition group M.E.K., has long advocated regime change in Iran. As Dexter Filkins’ recent New Yorker profile of the national security adviser explained, President Donald Trump, a skeptic about military intervention, may be less enthusiastic about that strategy. (As one source told Filkins, “Bolton’s worst nightmare is that Khamenei will write Trump a letter saying, ‘Why don’t we get together and talk?’ Because he knows that Trump would jump at that opportunity.”)
Iran’s Zarif surmised this in a recent interview, describing Bolton, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed as the “B team” who were looking to provoke Iran into doing something that could provide a pretext for military action, as opposed to Trump, who wanted to pressure Iran into negotiation.
While Trump has often seemed less preoccupied with Iran than some of his advisers have, he clearly sees a hard line as politically advantageous and has been letting Bolton—as well as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—set the aggressive tone. We may see the consequences very soon.