As Israel’s Threat to Bomb Iran Looms, U.S. Vows to Keep Aircraft Carrier Strike Group in Persian Gulf

BY Daniel Sagalyn  September 20, 2012 at 2:42 PM EDT


USS ENTERPRISE, North Arabian Sea | The U.S. Navy is vowing to keep commercial sea lanes open in the international waters off Iran, despite a view among a small number of critics that Washington’s military muscle may inadvertently stoke tensions with Tehran in the event of a crisis.

Israel has threatened to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities if that nation’s uranium enrichment and other activities suspected of building an atomic weapon do not abate.

In response to the saber rattling, Iran has threatened to mine one of the most important waterways in the world, the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20 percent of the world’s oil flows.

Along with coalition partners, the United States this week launched the largest ever military exercise to rehearse finding and destroying sea mines. U.S. brass has said it will continue to maintain an aircraft carrier strike group in the Persian Gulf. There also is a second carrier strike group in the Middle East located in the Arabian Sea.

But some observers say that in the event of a crisis — such as an Israeli attack on Iran — maintaining an aircraft carrier off the shores of Iran in the confined and crowded Gulf could make matters worse.

“Putting vulnerable carriers in the Persian Gulf is not a good idea, as it would facilitate crisis instability, not crisis stability,” said John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago. “They are just too vulnerable, and thus having them in the Persian Gulf would create powerful incentives for us to strike quickly at the Iranian military assets that threaten those carriers.”

Nonetheless, he said, “the U.S. would go to great lengths” to shut down immediately any war between Israel and Iran.

“I do not think we would join the attack. We do not want to fight another war in the Middle East, especially against Iran,” Mearsheimer said. “So we are not going to be looking for ways to bomb Iran or get ourselves involved in the fight. Indeed, we will be trying to do just the opposite. In that situation, you would definitely want the carriers outside the Persian Gulf.”

But U.S. Navy leaders reject the notion that deploying these floating armadas can have any negative consequences.

Rear Adm. Walter Carter, commander of the Enterprise Carrier Strike Group, said an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf would not make matters worse in the event of a shooting war between Israel and Iran.

“I would tell you it’s the opposite,” he said. “What we bring here is not a mission of instability. We bring here a mission of stability and security.”

The one-star admiral stressed that the ongoing drill to find and destroy mines is purely a defensive exercise.

“Make no mistake about it,” Carter said, “we are here to make sure that the global communication line” that supports free trade in and out of the region remains open.

The aircraft carrier plays an important support function in hunting mines, he insisted.

“There [are] really three aspects of anything that has to do with mines that are out there: There is the air aspect, there is a surface aspect. And then there is an explosive ordnance disposal aspect,” Carter said. “So obviously a carrier strike group, with all the capabilities that we bring, we bring all those pieces to bear.”

When asked what specifically the carrier would do in the exercise, which is receiving intense media attention, Carter responded, “Well, just like anything, it would be mostly about find, fix, finish. How you would basically locate [mines], and then of course there is a security aspect as well (meaning protecting the mine hunting ships from attack). But again without getting into any details, we are here in a support role.”

Bahrain, where the U.S. Naval 5th fleet is based, appreciates the U.S. military’s presence in the region and is particularly concerned about the spillover of radiation from any Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, according to Fawaz bin Mohammed Al Khalifa, president of Manama’s Information Affairs Ministry.

“This exercise sends assurance” to nations that depend on Middle Eastern oil, including Japan and China, he said.

PBS NewsHour deputy foreign affairs and defense editor Daniel Sagalyn is in the Persian Gulf covering the International Mine Countermeasures Exercise, which runs Sept. 16-27.