It was the second time in three weeks that Air Force bombers had conducted long-range flights near Iranian air space on short notice.
Dec. 10, 2020
A B-52H Stratofortress bomber based at Barksdale Air Force Base, La.A1c Jan K. Valle/United States Air Force
WASHINGTON — Two American B-52 bombers flew a show-of-force mission in the Persian Gulf on Thursday that military officials said was intended to deter Iran and its proxies from carrying out attacks against United States troops in the Middle East amid rising tensions between the two countries.
The lumbering warplanes’ 36-hour round-trip mission from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana was the second time in three weeks that Air Force bombers had conducted long-range flights near Iranian air space on short notice. The United States periodically conducts such quick demonstration missions to the Middle East and Asia to underscore American air power to allies and adversaries, but the two missions within a month is unusual.
The multinational mission, which included aircraft from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain, was routed well outside Iranian air space. The American warplanes were in the broader gulf region for about two hours before returning home, officials said. Two other B-52s from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota conducted the same type of long-range mission in the area on Nov. 21.
The flight on Thursday comes on the heels of the assassination last month of Iran’s top nuclear scientist, an attack Iran has blamed on Israel with possible American complicity. The bomber missions also come just weeks before the anniversary of the American drone strike in January that killed a senior Iranian commander, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, in Iraq.
“Potential adversaries should understand that no nation on earth is more ready and capable of rapidly deploying additional combat power in the face of any aggression,” Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of the military’s Central Command, said in a statement on Thursday.
“We do not seek conflict,” General McKenzie said, “but we must remain postured and committed to respond to any contingency.”
Military officials declined to say what live munitions, if any, the aircraft carried on their recent missions, but in recent years, the hulking bombers have conducted strikes with laser-guided conventional bombs against insurgent targets in Afghanistan.
Even as American officials sought to cast the flights as defensive in nature, President Trump’s top national security advisers had days earlier dissuaded him — at least for now — from considering bombing Iran’s main nuclear site in the coming weeks.
Given that White House officials have discussed aggressive options, Middle East specialists say it is little wonder that Iran may have difficulty deciphering the Trump administration’s intentions, especially during a volatile period in which Mr. Trump continues to insist falsely that he defeated President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.
“Iranians should be confused about how to interpret signals from a president whose policies and public statements have been so incoherent, impulsive and mercurial,” said Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “I suspect their goal is to simply wait out the madman until Biden comes.”
Iran issued no immediate comment on the flights.
In a briefing with a small group of reporters before the mission on Thursday, a senior military official said American intelligence analysts had detected “planning going on” — including preparations for possible rocket strikes or worse — by Iran and Shia militias in Iraq that it supports.
Over the past year, Iranian-aligned proxies in Iraq have conducted more than 50 rocket attacks on bases where United States troops are housed, as well as on the American Embassy in Baghdad, and launched 90 attacks on convoys carrying supplies to American troops, according to the Pentagon.
“In short, Iran is using Iraq as its proxy battleground against the United States, with Iran’s ultimate objective being to eject the United States and our forces from Iraq and the broader Middle East,” General McKenzie said last month during a virtual conference on the Middle East.
Many senior United States commanders and intelligence analysts say that since the death of General Suleimani, who ran the elite Quds force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Iran may not exercise the same degree of control over Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq that it once did. Some of these militias could lash out without Tehran’s blessing, possibly inciting escalation and a military exchange between Iran and the United States.
The senior military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe operations and intelligence assessments, did not cite any specific evidence of a larger, imminent attack against American personnel. But the official said military analysts assessed that the likelihood of Iran or its proxies miscalculating the risks of such a strike were higher than usual.
This assessment prompted the additional deterrent measures, the official said.
The United States has also dispatched an additional squadron of strike aircraft to Saudi Arabia in recent weeks. And the aircraft carrier Nimitz, which had left the Middle East on Nov. 15 to participate in a naval exercise off the coast of India, returned to the region 10 days later, ostensibly to provide protection to the several thousand forces that Mr. Trump ordered to withdraw from Afghanistan and Iraq.
“The ability to fly strategic bombers halfway across the world in a nonstop mission, and to rapidly integrate them with multiple regional partners, demonstrates our close working relationships and our shared commitment to regional security and stability,” General McKenzie said.
Tensions had been high approaching the anniversary of the killing of General Suleimani in Iraq, where the Trump administration said he was planning attacks on American forces.
Iran responded with missile strikes against bases in Iraq where United States troops were. No one was killed and the immediate crisis subsided, although Iran has said it had not fully avenged General Suleimani’s death.
More recently, a top Iranian scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was killed east of Tehran, in a daytime strike widely believed to have been carried out by Israeli operatives. American and Israeli officials say Mr. Fakhrizadeh was considered the driving force behind what they have described as Iran’s secretive nuclear weapons program.
Iran responded this month by enacting a law ordering an immediate ramping up of its enrichment of uranium to levels closer to weapons-grade fuel.
Before the assassination, there was considerable evidence that the Iranians were laying low, avoiding provocations that might give Mr. Trump a pretense to strike before he leaves office.
Iran’s leaders have made clear that regime survival is their No. 1 goal, and they have been careful not to take risks that could upend their hopes of a Biden administration lifting sanctions in exchange for restoring the nuclear deal with the United States.
But many military experts fear that the assassination might scramble the calculus in Tehran.
“The Iranians are going to be in a position where they have to retaliate,” Adm. William H. McRaven, the former commander of the military’s Special Operations Command, told ABC “This Week” two days after the killing. “They’re going to have to save face. And so now the issue becomes, what does that retaliation look like?”
“The Iranians don’t want to go to war with us,” Admiral McRaven continued. “We don’t want to go to war with Iran. So everybody needs to do the best they can to kind of lower the temperature and try not to get this into an escalation mode.”
Top United States military officials say a fragile balance may be holding. As Vice Adm. Samuel Paparo, the commander of the Navy’s Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain, put it last week at the Manama Dialogue regional security conference, “We have achieved an uneasy deterrence.”