B-52s Return To The Middle East In Show Of Force As Biden Weighs Iran Policy

For the time being, President Biden is continuing the long-range bomber deterrence missions that are aimed at keeping Iran in check.

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For the first time since President Joe Biden took office, U.S. Air Force B-52H bombers have performed a ‘show of force’ mission over the Persian Gulf, reinforcing the fact the U.S. military remains on a heightened state of alert as regards Iran. The sortie, which took place yesterday, comes as the new U.S. administration works out how it will handle Iran after a months-long tense standoff with the previous Trump Administration, and it continues the long-range deterrence missions aimed at Tehran that started back in November.

The two B-52s from the 2nd Bomb Wing departed Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, flew over Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, passed over the Persian Gulf near Qatar, then returned to Barksdale nonstop. The Pentagon has publically stated in the past that these types of missions are a means of deterring possible Iranian aggression, as well as signaling support to U.S. allies in the region.

U.S. Air Force/Airman 1st Class Jacob B. Wrightsman

U.S. Air Force B-52Hs prepare to take off from Barksdale Air Force Base during the latest bomber task force mission over the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility, January 26, 2021.

For parts of the sortie, the bombers were accompanied by fighter jets from the Royal Jordanian and Royal Saudi Air Forces, as well as by fighters from the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Nimitz. That supercarrier had been set to begin making its way home last year, but the Pentagon subsequently sent it back to the Middle East amid threats from the regime in Tehran over the U.S. military’s killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani last year, including some directed specifically at then-President Donald Trump.

“We do know that U.S. policy is evolving with respect to Iran right now and the new administration will make some decisions here over the next while,” an unnamed U.S. military official told the Defense One website. “I do know if we can continue to deter Iranian aggression… that it’ll give the policymakers more decision space.”

The same official confirmed that while the latest mission was not specifically scheduled to respond to any particular incident or threat, and had been planned weeks in advance, its timing “was determined based on the value of deterrence after [the] inauguration.” The official confirmed that further such missions would take place in the spring, but provided no further details.

“Other concerns included, would [Iran] try to do something to get some revenge on the Trump administration as they left office,” the official added. “We were also thinking ahead and going, okay, would they potentially try to test or pressure the U.S. military in the early days of the new administration?”

As noted, while this is the first such flight since President Biden took office on January 20, it is the fourth in the last two months, and the sixth since November.

U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Aaron Larue Guerrisky

A B-52H assigned to the 5th Bomb Wing during a previous mission over the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility, January 17, 2021.

The last two such missions took place on January 8 and January 17 during a period in which there were acute fears that Iran might launch some kind of ‘revenge’ attack to mark the first anniversary of the U.S. drone strike in Iraq in January 2020 that killed General Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Quds Force. Threats against the United States, and former President Trump, have continued since then, including one only last week in which Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei posted on social media a highly suggestive image of a drone targeting the former president on a golf course.

Aside from the assassination of General Soleimani, relations between Iran and the United States have been severely strained ever since Trump’s 2018 decision to walk away from the 2015 deal between Iran and six world powers that sought to limit Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. Since then, sanctions reimposed by Washington have had a significant effect on the Iranian economy and have in turn been used by the Iranian regime to attempt to mobilize hostility toward the United States.

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An Iranian underground Iranian ballistic missile facility was revealed for the first time last November.

However, Biden is in the process of recalibrating Washington’s approach to Tehran and has said that the United States could rejoin the nuclear deal if Iran resumes strict compliance.

Iran, meanwhile, has called for Biden to “choose a better path” by returning to the 2015 nuclear deal but said it would refuse to cooperate with any further concessions that might be demanded of it. Writing in Foreign Affairs magazine, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that Biden “can begin by removing all sanctions imposed since Trump assumed office and seek to re-enter and abide by the 2015 nuclear deal without altering its painstakingly negotiated terms.” 

It is worth noting that the Israeli government, for its part, which had cultivated close ties to Trump and was a prominent supporter of his policies toward Iran, is strongly opposed to the United States returning to the Iran deal. As a backdrop to this potential stumbling block are the repeated indications that Israel itself may be planning to launch some kind of strike against Iran, most likely directed at its nuclear facilities. Israeli policy toward Tehran has included recent strikes against Iranian-sponsored groups in Syria, as well as the apparent assassination of top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh last November. This attack, which reportedly made use of a gun in either a remote-controlled or entirely automated mount on a pickup truck, is discussed in more detail here.

In what may have been another show of force directed by Israel against Iran, imagery appeared on social media earlier this week showing Israeli Air Force F-35I stealth fighter jets over southern Lebanon and Beirut, where the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militant group maintains a significant presence. Reports in the Israeli media suggested that the mission was a deliberate signal to Hezbollah and in turn Iran, of Israel’s air superiority.

At the same time, Iranian saber-rattling seems to have extended to its regional rival Saudi Arabia, too. Tehran has been a consistent backer of the Houthi rebel group in Yemen, likely including assistance for the group’s activities directed against Saudi Arabia, which have included attacks using ballistic missiles, anti-ship and land-attack cruise missiles, as well as remote-controlled suicide boats and suicide drones. These have mainly targeted Saudi civilian airports and oil infrastructure but have also reached the Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh.

Most recently, the blame for an explosion in Riyadh yesterday fell upon the Houthis, although the group did not acknowledge responsibility for the apparent rocket attack. Imagery from social media apparently showed a missile being intercepted over the city by a Saudi Arabian Patriot air defense system.

While Houthi attacks against Saudi Arabia have apparently continued, so far, there has not been any sign of an Iranian reprisal against U.S. interests in the region, or elsewhere. However, the threat posed by Iran in Saudi Arabia, in particular, is driving the U.S. military to look at options for alternative bases in that country. Earlier this week it was confirmed that the U.S. Department of Defense is examining the possibility of using a Red Sea port in Saudi Arabia as well as an additional two airfields in the kingdom. Currently, around 2,500 U.S. troops plus rotational deployments of fighter jets, and Patriot missile batteries are stationed at Prince Sultan Air Base southeast of Riyadh.

However, the fact that the Trump policy of B-52 ‘show of force’ missions to the region is continuing under Biden, at least for the time being, suggests that the U.S. is still keen to demonstrate its resolve to Iran, while the new administration figures out its longer-term aims in the region.

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com