The Wall Street Journal has a special report on American and Israeli spying efforts in the run-up to American negotiations with Iran. They were not, as you might imagine, characterized by cooperation in pursuit of a mutual interest in reigning in the Iran regime. Rather, they were conducted in a spirit of hostility, with the administration directing the US military and intelligence community to ride herd on Israel’s military capacity to respond to Iran long before any negotiations took shape.
This movement to restrain Israel happened in spite of earlier US/Israeli cooperation and coordination on STUXNET and the assassination of Iranian scientists, according to the Journal‘s report. Israel considered that STUXNET had reached its limits, and argued for a commando raid to destroy the fortified Fordow facility. The article cites Michéle Flournoy as its source for this claim, for which she is quoted on the record. The Obama administration decided to stymie the Israeli raid, a decision that expanded to Israeli military options over time.
Nerves frayed at the White House after senior officials learned Israeli aircraft had flown in and out of Iran in what some believed was a dry run for a commando raid on the site. Worried that Israel might ignite a regional war, the White House sent a second aircraft carrier to the region and readied attack aircraft, a senior U.S. official said, “in case all hell broke loose.”…
U.S. spy agencies stepped up satellite surveillance of Israeli aircraft movements. They detected when Israeli pilots were put on alert and identified moonless nights, which would give the Israelis better cover for an attack. They watched the Israelis practice strike missions and learned they were probing Iran’s air defenses, looking for ways to fly in undetected, U.S. officials said….
The White House decided to keep Mr. Netanyahu in the dark about the secret Iran talks, believing he would leak word to sabotage them.
This report has been received in Israel as evidence that the United States was prepared to bomb Israeli war planes to prevent them from attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities. For example, the Jewish Press reports that conclusion as its headline: “US Spied on Israel, Prepared to Destroy Israeli Bombers to Protect Iran.”
That conclusion is not supported by the evidence in the story. Those carriers were also being used to provide Close Air Support in Afghanistan. Even during the Bush administration, when a second carrier would arrive in the region to relieve its predecessor, the Navy would try to arrange as much of an overlap as possible so that more missions could be flown in support of forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. As this time frame also overlaps with Obama’s half-surge in the Afghan campaign, an ill-conceived escalation-with-an-expiration-date that has led to two-thirds of the American fatalities in that war, a second aircraft carrier capable of providing additional support made practical sense even within the context of Afghanistan alone.
Nevertheless, the question is worth asking. What orders did the carrier have in the event that “all hell should break loose”? The carrier in question appears to have been the USS Enterprise, which joined the USS Abraham Lincoln in mid-2012. The deployment was described as ‘routine’ and not a response to a specific threat. Rather, it was portrayed as support to Afghan operations and anti-piracy operations. Nevertheless, news agencies noted at the time that tensions on Iran’s nuclear program were “rising.”
The deployment was handled by the US 5th Fleet out of Bahrain, which is also known as NAVCENT, that is, the US Navy’s component of US Central Command (USCENTCOM). Central Command is a geographic combatant command, one that has a particular set of missions derived from ‘ownership’ of a particular part of the world. Israel is not part of US Central Command, but Iran is. Central Command’s ability to support its mission is thus far greater if Iran is the target than if Israel is, because Central Command’s whole support apparatus is built around generating intelligence and information about countries within its area of responsibility.
That does not authorize a final conclusion, however. Any American strike on Israel would be classified at the very highest levels, and compartmentalized to a very few people. Thus, there is no reason to believe that such a strike would expect to draw upon the expertise of the J2 (Intelligence) section of the combatant command overseeing the deployed assets that made the strike. The intelligence preparation for the attack would be carried out within a small cell that could be located at a different combatant command, or even in a non-defense agency, precisely in the hope of cutting down on communication of the plans until they were to be executed.
The USS Enterprise cruised the Mediterranean as well as the Persian Gulf, which meant that it would have passed through the area of responsibility of US European Command (USEUCOM) — which includes Israel — on its way to the Iranian deployment. Journalists wishing to press the question should look for personnel assignments suggesting that the Enterprise may have had operations or intelligence personnel with experience at USEUCOM or its Naval command, US-NAVEUR also known as the 6th Fleet. If the Enterprise was crewed up with personnel whose service would have given them the opportunity to extensively study Israeli military capacities, that would be an indicator that such a mission was being considered at higher levels even if the crew members themselves were never warned of it.
We do know that the Obama administration recently arranged for no carrier to be present in the Persian Gulf region for two months at the time that the US Congress and Iran’s parliament would be considering the Iran deal. This lapse is a far more shocking one than the presence of two carriers, which has happened three times in the last two decades. It almost certainly served a political purpose, perhaps a show of good faith, or a reduction of the capacity of American military officers to respond to Iranian provocations that would prevent rising tensions within Iran’s government during consideration of the deal. That the Obama administration might have deployed a carrier to suppress Israel at this time — either as a bluff, or with real orders to do so — is thus not outside the realm of possibility. The failure to deploy any carrier means a reduction in support to US forces in Afghanistan, after all, so the failure to deploy a carrier is more costly than the deployment of a second carrier in terms of American lives. If they are willing to pay that cost in service to this political agenda, there is no reason to doubt that they would be willing to pursue that same agenda by the deployment of a second carrier.
The question remains open and worth investigating.