Additional US fighter planes sent to Gulf amid Iran tensions
Washington – Nearly a dozen Air Force F-22 stealth fighters have deployed to the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, part of a force buildup requested by U.S. Central Command in May in response to what it called heightened Iranian threats against American forces in the region.
The Air Force arm of U.S. Central Command on Friday said the F-22 Raptors arrived this week at al-Udeid air base to “defend American forces and interests.” It posted to its website photos of several F-22s arriving there on Thursday and said this is the first time F-22s have deployed to al-Udeid, which is a hub for U.S. air operations in the Middle East.
F-22s, which carry air-to-air missiles and can perform ground-attack missions as well, had previously deployed to al-Dhafra air base in the United Arab Emirates, where they were used last year in support of U.S. and partner forces in Syria.
Four B-52 strategic bombers were deployed to al-Udeid days after a May 5 White House announcement that the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier strike group also was being rushed to the region in response to “troubling and escalatory indications and warnings” and as a “message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force.”
At the request of Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of Central Command, additional Patriot air-and-missile defense systems also were sent to the Gulf region in recent weeks. He also is receiving additional surveillance and intelligence-gathering aircraft to improve the military’s ability to monitor potential Iranian threats against shipping in the Gulf area.
A meeting of the remaining partners in the Iranian nuclear deal produced some progress but not enough to satisfy Tehran’s demands, a senior Iranian official said Friday, offering little prospect for now of the country backing away from a move to surpass a uranium stockpile threshold that could doom the agreement.
Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, said after meeting with senior officials from Britain, Germany, France, China, Russia and the European Union that a complex barter-type system set up to keep trade with Iran afloat is now active. But he insisted that for the so-called INSTEX system to be useful, “Europeans need to buy oil from Iran, or to consider credit lines for this mechanism.”
Araghchi described the meeting in Vienna, a regular quarterly gathering of signatories to the 2015 accord, as positive and constructive. He said it was “one step forward” compared with previous sessions, “but it is still not enough, and it is still not meeting Iran’s expectations.”
The 2015 agreement was aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions in exchange for relief from economic sanctions. President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the accord last year and he has imposed new sanctions on Iran in hopes of forcing Tehran into negotiating a wider-ranging deal.
Iran recently quadrupled its production of low-enriched uranium. It previously said it would surpass a 300-kilogram stockpile limit set by the accord by Thursday, but then said it was below the limit Wednesday and there would be no new assessment until “after the weekend.” It is currently a holiday weekend in Iran.
European countries are pressing for Iran to comply in full with the accord, though they have not specified what the consequences would be of failing to do so. But Iranian officials maintain that even if it surpasses the enrichment limit, it would not be breaching the deal, and say such a move could be reversed quickly.
The Europeans also face a July 7 deadline set by Tehran to offer long-promised relief from U.S. sanctions, or Iran says it will also begin enriching its uranium closer to weapons-grade levels.
After Friday’s meeting, several EU countries said they are supporting efforts to keep the nuclear deal alive. Austria, Belgium, Finland, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden wrote in a joint statement that “aware of the difficulties to implement the economic part of the agreement, we are working … to establish channels to facilitate legitimate trade and financial operations with Iran.”
INSTEX was conceived in January but has taken months to activate. It would help ensure trade between Iran and Europe by allowing buyers and sellers to exchange money without relying on the usual cross-border financial transactions.
Senior EU diplomat Helga Schmid confirmed on Twitter that the system is “now operational, (with) first transactions being processed” and more EU member countries to join. She said that Friday’s discussions were constructive and added that “full and effective implementation of #IranDeal by all sides remains key.”
Araghchi said he will report back to Tehran, which will make further decisions. Of the 300-kilogram limit, he said that “the decision to reduce our commitments has already (been) made in Iran, and we continue on that process unless our expectations are met.”
Asked whether there would be a follow-up meeting, Araghchi said that delegates “decided to have a ministerial meeting very soon,” perhaps in the next few weeks, although a time and place have not yet been determined. Friday’s meeting was held at a lower level of senior foreign ministry officials.
Trump said on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Japan that “there’s no rush” to ease tensions with Iran.
“There’s absolutely no time pressure,” he added. “I think that in the end, hopefully, it’s going to work out. If it does, great. And if doesn’t, you’ll be hearing about it.”
Tensions have been rising in the Middle East. Citing unspecified Iranian threats, the U.S. has sent an aircraft carrier to the region and deployed additional troops alongside the tens of thousands already there.
The U.S. has been worried about international shipping through the Strait of Hormuz since tankers were damaged in May and June in what Washington has blamed on limpet mines from Iran, although Tehran denies any involvement. Last week, Iran shot down a U.S. Navy surveillance drone, saying it violated its territory; Washington said it was in international airspace.
Cornelius Adebahr, an associate fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations think tank in Berlin, said there was a risk of “a big conflict.”
“There is so much space for miscalculations, for misperceptions and there is no direct communication between Iran and the U.S.,” he said. During the Cold War, he noted, Washington and Moscow had a direct hotline for crises, but now “there is nothing comparable and that makes this all so dangerous.”
On Thursday, U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook met top European diplomats in Paris and said he wants them to get tougher on Iran, instead of clinging to the nuclear deal.
The U.S. is trying to drum up support for an international naval force in the Persian Gulf, notably to protect shipping. On Friday, Hook met in London with the head of the International Maritime Organization, the U.N. shipping safety agency, to share intelligence on “Iran’s recent aggression in and around the Strait of Hormuz.”
Hook said that “we have put ourselves in a strictly defensive position but we are, we think, making strides to restore deterrence.”
He also stressed that “you can’t do business with the United States and Iran, and everyone has chosen the United States over Iran for a number of reasons.”