As the US flies more bombers to the Middle East, experts doubt Iran is the real audience

·6 min read
Air Force B-52 KC-135 refueling
A US Air Force B-52 is aerial refueled by a KC-135 Stratotanker over the US Central Command area of responsibility, December 30, 2020. Senior Airman Roslyn Ward
  • The US has mounted high-profile military displays in the Middle East in recent weeks amid rising tensions ahead of the anniversary of the killing of a well-known Iranian military commander.

  • But experts in the US are skepitcal that those displays will affect Iranian thinking or actions.

  • Some have questioned whether the US military activity there is meant instead for US consumption.

  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

US bombers made another long-range flight over the Persian Gulf this week, in what US officials described as an effort to deter Iran from attacking the US or its allies in the Middle East.

But the nature of the gesture and dynamics in the region lead experts to question whether those actions will influence Tehran and if it is even the intended audience.

On December 30, two US Air Force B-52 bombers made "a deliberate appearance in the Middle East," according to US Central Command, which oversees military operations in the region.

That followed a flight by two B-52s on December 10, and B-52s previously flew through the region on November 21, at which time Central Command said the US hadn't had a "long-range bomber presence" in the region since "early 2020."

A US guided-missile submarine also sailed into the Persian Gulf on December 21. The announcement of that transit, which the military rarely details, emphasized the sub's firepower and its ability to carry special-operations forces.

Navy USS Georgia submarine
US Navy guided-missile submarine USS Georgia, front, in the Strait of Hormuz with guided-missile cruiser USS Port Royal, December 21, 2020. US Navy

The US activity reflects rising tensions ahead of the January 3 anniversary of the US assassination of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a highly regarded commander who led Iranian operations abroad, particularly in Iraq and Syria.

The November 21 flight came a few days after rockets, apparently fired by an Iranian-backed militia, landed in the US Embassy complex in Baghdad. On November 27, a senior official in Iran's nuclear program was assassinated near Tehran, which Iran has blamed on Israel. On December 23, Baghdad's Green Zone, where the the US Embassy is located, was hit by its largest rocket attack since 2010.

Some form of retaliation for Soleimani's killing is expected, but US officials appear divided over the actual threat. A senior defense official told The Washington Post that the situation is the "most concerning that I have seen" since Soleimani's death. Another senior defense official told CNN that there is "not a single piece of corroborating intel" indicating an imminent attack.

Other experts are skeptical that military displays will influence Iran.

"It's hard to know what they are thinking, but I guess Trump officials and military commanders hope that bomber flights will intimidate Iran, which will restrain militias in Iraq," Benjamin Friedman, policy director at the advocacy group Defense Priorities, told Insider on Thursday.

That "hope is probably futile," Friedman added. "It's hard to see why threats by sortie would change Iran's calculus, nor is it clear those firing rockets in Iraq answer to Tehran," whose control of those groups "seems partial."

Kingston Reif, an expert on disarmament and threat reduction at the Arms Control Association, said the flights reflected an unsound military approach that also appears meant for domestic messaging.

"The flights have been demonstrably ineffective in compelling Iran to cease support of proxy attacks, are a waste of money, and are occurring against the backdrop of an increasingly tense and potentially escalatory atmosphere," Reif told Insider on Thursday.

iran soleimani funeral
Iranians in Tehran mourn Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force, who was killed in an airstrike in Iraq, January 4, 2020. Nazanin Tabatabaee/WANA via REUTERS

When the Pentagon "publicizes the mission," the goal isn't deterrence but "self-validation," according to Micah Zenko, an expert on US military action in recent conflicts.

Previous US strikes have been "intentionally secret" until carried out. "Thus, overt shows of force don't deter, [because] they're so flashy and out of character," Zenko said Wednesday, calling them "Aerial parades for US domestic consumption."

President Donald Trump reportedly sought options for a military strike against Iran in November, after the International Atomic Energy Agency said Iran's uranium stockpile had grown 12 times larger than allowed under the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, from which Trump withdrew in 2018.

Trump was dissuaded at the time, according to The New York Times, but he continues to threaten Iran, including after the December 23 rocket attack in Iraq, when he said the US would hold Tehran responsible "if one American is killed."

Trump's affinity for high-profile military displays and concern about his portrayal in the media are well known. Recent military activity, mounted by a Pentagon seen as increasingly politicized, may be meant as signs of resolve for a domestic audience.

"Some officials probably realize bomber flights are pointless but figure it's a way to look tough for no real cost that lets you say you did something about it," Friedman said.

'No clear mission'

al Asad
US soldiers inspect the site where an Iranian missile hit at Ain al-Asad air base in Anbar province, Iraq, on January 13, 2020. John Davison/Reuters

Trump's hardline on Iran comes as his administration pursues a drawdown in the region. Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller said in November that the Pentagon would pull thousands of troops from Afghanistan and Iraq by January 15, leaving about 2,500 troops in each country. (Congress is seeking to block some of those moves.)

Military officials, including the head of Central Command, acknowledge that China and Russia will be the US's focus going forward, and many officials and experts argue continued emphasis on the Middle East is counterproductive.

"We currently have troops in Iraq that are exposed to attacks from Iranian proxy forces," Dan Caldwell, senior advisor at Concerned Veterans for America, told Insider on Thursday, citing Kata'ib Al Hezbollah, whose commander was killed alongside Soleimani in January.

"But the military's train and equip program for the Iraqi Security Forces actually indirectly strengthen those same [proxy] forces, since they are aligned with many elements of the Iraqi military and have at times even come into possession of American equipment," Caldwell added.

The public and many others are increasingly skeptical that US interests in Middle East justify its current presence there.

"Instead of sending more military assets to the Middle East, we should pull our troops out of Iraq and Syria - where they currently have no clear mission and can be easily attacked," Caldwell said.

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