On May 5, National Security Advisor John Bolton announced the deployment of a carrier strike group and bomber task force to the Middle East “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.” He said the move was in response to “a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings,” but did not specify further. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the press that the statement was “something we’ve been working on for a little while.” Both officials emphasized that Washington would hold Tehran responsible for an attack by an Iranian proxy, such as Lebanese Hezbollah or the Houthis in Yemen. It was the latest expression of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. On May 9, Pompeo reiterated that the United States is not seeking war. "But Iran’s forty years of killing American soldiers, attacking American facilities, and taking American hostages is a constant reminder that we must defend ourselves," he said in a statement.
In late April, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned about the possibility of war between Iran and the United States or its allies. He specified that he did not think President Donald Trump wants a war with Iran. But Zarif implied that Bolton seeks conflict, with regime change as the overall goal. Before his appointment, Bolton had long advocated for regime change and military against the Islamic Republic. Zarif has alleged that Bolton and others are working to create situation that could escalate tensions between Tehran and Washington. “I think people have more prudence than allowing a military confrontation to happen. But, I think the U.S. administration is putting things in place for accidents to happen,” he told CBS News.
A U.S. Central Command spokesperson confirmed the Iranian threat but did not offer details. "U.S. Central Command has seen recent and clear indications that Iranian and Iranian proxy forces were making preparations to possibly attack U.S. forces in the region," said Captain Bill Urban. "This include threats on land and in the maritime. We are not going to be able to provide detailed information on specific threats at this time." Marine Corps General Frank McKenzie, commander of Central Command, emphasized that the United States is “not seeking a fight with the Iranian regime” at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on May 8. "Any attack on U.S. interests will be met with unrelenting force,” he added.
The deployment of the carrier strike group was part of regularly scheduled deployment. The ships departed Norfolk, Virginia on April 1 and were in the Mediterranean Sea as of late April. The group will later head to the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean on its ways to its new homeport in San Diego, California. The bomber deployment also did not seem to be out of the ordinary. A group of B-1 bombers, which had participated in bombing ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria, returned to their base in Texas at the end of March, so a new deployment to the Middle East was expected eventually.
On May 10, the Pentagon announced that additional forces, the U.S.S. Arlington and a Patriot battery, would join the carrier group. The U.S.S. Arlington “transports U.S. Marines, amphibious vehicles, conventional landing craft and rotary aircraft with the capability to support amphibious assault, special operations, or expeditionary warfare missions,” the statement explained. The Patriot battery is “a long-range, all-weather air defense system to counter tactical ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and advanced aircraft.” The Pentagon emphasized that the United States “does not seek conflict with Iran, but we are postured and ready to defend U.S. forces and interests in the region.” The following are remarks by Bolton and Pompeo on the deployment.
Statement from the National Security Advisor Ambassador John Bolton
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.
—May 6, 2019
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
And then finally, you all would have seen the statement that came out from the White House just within the last half hour, something we’ve been working on for a little while. It is absolutely the case that we’ve seen escalatory action from the Iranians, and it is equally the case that we will hold the Iranians accountable for attacks on American interests, and the fact that that – those actions take place, if they do, by some third-party proxy, whether that’s a Shia militia group or the Houthis or Hizballah, we will hold the Iranians – Iranian leadership directly accountable for that.
QUESTION: Can you be just a little bit – well, can you be any bit more explicit about what escalatory actions you’re talking about? I mean --
SECRETARY POMPEO: No, I can’t.
QUESTION: Is it something that we – that we would have seen but might not have interpreted as an escalatory action?
SECRETARY POMPEO: I don’t want to – I don’t want to talk about what underlays it, but make no mistake. We have good reason to want to communicate clearly about how the Iranians should understand how we will respond to actions that they may take.
QUESTION: And this action is separate from the situation with Gaza? That’s not what it is?
SECRETARY POMPEO: That’s correct. It is separate from that, Matt.
QUESTION: How long is the carrier expected to be out there, and when will it arrive, when abouts?
SECRETARY POMPEO: I’ll leave the details of the carrier’s travels to Department of Defense.
QUESTION: So has the U.S. communicated to the Iranians in any way this message other than the move today, either directly or through another party?
SECRETARY POMPEO: The Iranians understand exactly what our view is of the threats that they’re posing to U.S. interests around the world. I can’t say anything more than that.
—May 6, 2019, to the press
SECRETARY POMPEO: We have continued to see activity that leads us to believe that there is escalation that may be taking place, and so we’re taking all the appropriate actions both from a security perspective and well as our ability to make sure that the President has a wide range of options in the event that something should actually take place.
QUESTION: The Iranians are suggesting that on Wednesday they may pull out of parts of the JCPOA. Do you have any thoughts about that? I mean, there are a lot of people in Washington, elsewhere, who think that this is what you guys have been trying to do, to get them to pull out so that you get to another negotiation.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah. What we’ve been trying to do is to get Iran to behave like a normal nation. We laid out 12 elements of that. Every single one of those elements is consistent with what we ask every other country in the world to do. So these are not Iran-specific, things like not conducting assassination campaigns around the world, not sponsoring terror organizations that inflict missile attacks on Israel now 600-plus, not building missile systems in Yemen.
These are things we ask every county to do. That’s our objective. That’s been our goal from the beginning. I’ve been working on this since I was a member of Congress. Our objective is to get the Islamic Republic of Iran to behave like a normal nation. When they do that, we will welcome them back. If part of – the President said we’re happy at the right time-- if there’s a negotiation that needs to take place, we’re happy to engage in that as well.
QUESTION: Right. But do you have any specific reaction to the suggestion that they might withdraw? Does that – do you care if they are in or out?
SECRETARY POMPEO: They’ve threatened many things over the last two years.
QUESTION: And one more. Can you confirm that the carrier deployment is related to potential threats against U.S. troops in Iraq?
SECRETARY POMPEO: I’m going to leave talking about deployments to the Department of Defense.
QUESTION: Okay. Are we facing any threats from Iran or proxy forces on U.S. forces in Iraq?
SECRETARY POMPEO: As Secretary of State I have a responsibility to keep the officers that work for me safe each and every day all around the world. That includes in Erbil and Baghdad, in our facilities in Amman, all around the Middle East. And so any time we receive threat reporting, things that raise concerns, we do everything we can both to – do all that we can to make sure that those planned or contemplated attacks don’t take place, and to make sure that we’ve got the right security posture. The American people should know we’ve done that.
—May 6, 2019, to the press in Finland
The Islamic Republic of Iran has engaged in an escalating series of threatening actions and statements in recent weeks. The response of the United States and our partners and allies has been clear: We do not seek war. But Iran’s forty years of killing American soldiers, attacking American facilities, and taking American hostages is a constant reminder that we must defend ourselves.
The regime in Tehran should understand that any attacks by them or their proxies of any identity against U.S. interests or citizens will be answered with a swift and decisive U.S. response. Our restraint to this point should not be mistaken by Iran for a lack of resolve. To date the regime’s default option has been violence, and we appeal to those in Tehran who see a path to a prosperous future through de-escalation to modify the regime’s behavior. As President Trump stated yesterday, he “looks forward to someday meeting with leaders of Iran in order to work out an agreement and, very importantly, taking steps to give Iran the future it deserves.”
—May 9, 2019, in a statement
Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook
"We had indications of heightened Iranian readiness to conduct offensive operations against U.S. forces and or interest in the Middle East. So after we received these multiple credible threats by Iranian regime forces, we repositioned our military assets accordingly."
—May 8, 2019, to NPR
Statement from the Department of Defense on Additional Forces to U.S. Central Command
The Acting Secretary of Defense has approved the movement of USS Arlington (LPD-24) and a Patriot battery to U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) as part of the command’s original request for forces from earlier this week.
These assets will join the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and a U.S. Air Force bomber task force in the Middle East region in response to indications of heightened Iranian readiness to conduct offensive operations against U.S. forces and our interests.
The Department of Defense continues to closely monitor the activities of the Iranian regime, their military and proxies. Due to operational security, we will not discuss timelines or location of forces.
The United States does not seek conflict with Iran, but we are postured and ready to defend U.S. forces and interests in the region.
USS Arlington is a San Antonio-class ship that transports U.S. Marines, amphibious vehicles, conventional landing craft and rotary aircraft with the capability to support amphibious assault, special operations, or expeditionary warfare missions.
USS Arlington also provides a high quality command and control capability and improved interoperability with our allies and partners in the region.
A Patriot battery is a long-range, all-weather air defense system to counter tactical ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and advanced aircraft.