By Edward Carney
It was reported on Thursday that the aircraft carrier group headed by the USS Abraham Lincoln had passed through the Suez Canal on its way from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf. According to Agence France-Presse, the passage was announced by Egyptian authorities who received thanks from the US military for helping to guarantee its safety as its crew responds to an order from the White House to provide deterrence against recently revealed threats from the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The existence of those threats was first disclosed by National Security Advisor John Bolton on Sunday when he announced that the aircraft carrier and a bomber task force would both be deployed to the area in a gesture of warning to the Iranian regime. The Lincoln was already scheduled to arrive in the Persian Gulf at some point in the future as part of a “dynamic deployment,” but its passage through the Suez Canal on Thursday reflects an expedited schedule stemming from Bolton’s order.
Days after the National Security Advisor referenced new intelligence regarding the threat of attack by Iranian forces or militant proxies in the surrounding region, the acting secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff each confirmed the threat and provided sparse accounts of the circumstances under which the relevant intelligence was acquired and analyzed. Somewhat more detailed information emerged on Thursday, when NBC News reported that three anonymous defense officials had communicated their familiarity with the intelligence reports.
Those sources indicated that at least one Iranian official had openly discussed the potential for pitting militant proxies against US forces, but not against any other nations’ militaries. The NBC report went on to identify specific Shiite extremist groups in Iraq and elsewhere that might be utilized as part of this Iranian mission. Some such organizations can reasonably be described as “sleeper cells,” meaning that the relevant Iranian chatter refers to the prospective activation of threats that already exist in the region.
Those threats were reportedly backed up by corresponding intelligence regarding the transportation of missiles across the region, to be used either by proxy forces or by Iran’s own foreign operatives, chiefly those associated with the Quds Force division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
While Iran ordinarily makes a concerted effort to conceal such smuggling activities, US officials report that missiles and missile components have recently been left visible to overhead surveillance and may have been accompanied by mobile launchers, thus highlighting the danger of Iran attempting to launch weapons directly from small ships in the Persian Gulf and surrounding waterways.
However, the latest reports suggest that this has been regarded as a secondary threat, behind the threat of attacks by proxy. But missile launches could constitute a source of support for the actions of those proxies, in the event that open conflict broke out. The actual likelihood of that happening remains a source of some debate.
For its part, the White House has repeatedly offered assurances that it is not interested in military conflict, even as it pursues a strategy of maximum economic and diplomatic pressure. Tehran has offered broadly similar assurances regarding the supposedly defensive purposes of an ongoing military buildup. But this narrative is not necessarily incompatible with the prospective order for attacks by proxy, much less with the possibility of Iranian officials signaling their tacit approval for proxy forces to undertake such attacks on their own accord.
This speaks to some of the concerns that emerged last month in the wake of the Trump administration’s announcement that it would be sanctioning the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization. It was the first time the US government had extended such designation to an official institution of a foreign government, and it led Iran to a similarly unprecedented undertaking, namely terrorist designation for all US military forces in the Middle East.
On Monday, The Atlantic published an article the questioned the implications of these mutual designations while also highlighting some of the ways in which Iran might try to harm US assets if tensions escalated to the point of conflict. The magazine followed up on Wednesday with an article that highlighted the possibility that the simultaneous presence of US forces and Iran-backed militant groups in Iraq could be a flashpoint for the tensions between the US and Iran itself.
Some of these groups had been participants in an uneasy alliance with the US military, as multiple actors in the region sought to beat back the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. But now that ISIL’s Sunni militants have been almost entirely defeated, there is an escalating danger of the situation regressing to something like what it was when Iran-backed groups participated in the insurgency against US forces during the American occupation of Iraq.
The Atlantic explains that Iraqi militant groups could be an effective tool not only for the furtherance of longstanding escalation between Iran and the US, but also for the resurrection of an “old narrative” that helps to justify that escalation on the Iranian side by portraying “US troops as an occupying force in the country.” The same narrative would certainly be utilized throughout the region, including in places like Syria where both Iran and the US also have a presence, and in places like Yemen where the US merely supports regional allies’ actions against another Iran-backed militant group.
Of course, something akin to the occupation narrative has always been propagated by the Iranian regime, which refers to Western powers as “global arrogance” and to the US specifically as the “great Satan.” Naturally, ongoing tensions have inspired even more direct applications of that narrative, as when Iran threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz last month and denounced its regional adversaries for supposedly giving up their autonomy and turning their backs on the Muslim world through alliance with the US.
Meanwhile, Iran’s most firmly established proxies have contributed their own rhetoric to this narrative, as part of a well-known effort to unify large swaths of Muslim-majority territory under the banner of the Islamic Republic. The Iran-backed paramilitary Hezbollah spoke out on Thursday through its representatives in the Lebanese parliament, saying that US-led sanctions demonstrate a “tyrannical and dictatorial trend.”
According to the Associated Press, the parliamentary bloc accused the US of adhering only to “the law of the jungle,” then added that Iran has the power to defend itself. Such statements are likely to raise greater concerns in the wake of the recent American intelligence than they might have done otherwise. At the same time, they could encourage Western policymakers to wonder how much Hezbollah views itself as an instrument of that Iranian power.