Volusia is a small town in Florida, about sixty kilometres west of the coastal resort of Daytona. This dot on the map, straddling the St John River just off the state’s “black bear strategic byway”, seems a very long way from the rising tensions over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. In fact, the connection is surprisingly close.
For Volusia also sits at the eastern border of the extensive Ocala national forest, which plays host to the United States navy's only firing-range - the “Pinecastle impact range” - capable of dropping live air-to-surface weapons. The town’s residents are used to living with noise, but since mid-January 2012 they have been “hearing booms loud enough to rattle their windows and scare their cats” (see Skyler Swisher, “Naval bomb practice rattles Volusia-Flagler”, Daytona Beach News-Journal, 2 February 2012).
This exceptional level of activity reflects the range’s current intensive use as an aircrew-training site for pilots and weapons officers from the USS Enterprise now cruising offshore. The plan is that this will be redeployed to the Persian Gulf some time in March 2012 as the leading vessel in a third US carrier battle-group in the region, alongside the groups already there led by the USS Abraham Lincoln and the USS Carl Vinson.
The Enterprise battle-group is normally assigned to the United States navy's sixth fleet in the Mediterranean, though it has also transited the Suez canal into the Red Sea and beyond. This time, the Pentagon is making it clear that the Enterprise deployment is intended specifically to send a strong message to Iran.
The carrier message
To get a sense of what is happening, some context is helpful. The Enterprise is as a 1960s-era vessel the oldest nuclear-powered carrier in the United States navy; its current deployment will be the twenty-second and last before it is decommissioned. Until that happens it remains one of eleven potential carrier battle-groups in the US’s inventory, including much more modern Nimitz-class warships such as the Abraham Lincoln and the Carl Vinson.
It is routine for carrier battle-groups (CBG), once assembled and deployed in distant waters, to stay on station for up to six months - though with resupply this can be extended. There is often a short period of overlap between CBGs coming and going, but rarely much more than this. What is most unusual about the two CBGs now in the Persian Gulf - which have been there barely a month - is precisely that there are two rather than one in the same area; which also means that to have three on station, potentially for several months, is very rare indeed.
This also poses a major task for the navy. There may be eleven CBGs in the entire US fleet, but each carrier (accompanied by its cruiser, destroyers, supply-ship and submarine) can be deployed only for about 40% of the time. The remaining period is spent on transiting to and from the deployment area, crew training (as with the Enterprise in Florida just now), shore leave, minor repairs and major refits (which sometimes take a year or more).
Amid these constraints it is rare enough for the US to have five carriers at sea at the same time - and almost never in one part of the world. Indeed, the last time this happened was in 1990-91 at the time of the first Gulf war following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait (when the US navy had thirteen carriers).
A recent column in this series highlighted the presence of the Abraham Lincoln and Carl Vinson groups in the region, while cautioning that this does not itself translate into a US plan to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. It means, instead, that the Pentagon wishes to be ready for any crisis, whether this takes the form of an Iranian provocation, an unintended escalation or (most likely) the dangerous consequences of an Israeli attack (see “The thirty-year: past, present, future”, 20 January 2012).
That may continue to be the case, but it is worth pointing to subsequent developments that in a fast-moving situation offer fresh signals about what may lie ahead. On one side, a new report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute by Robert Kelley casts a sceptical eye on the claim that Iran is seeking an early nuclear capability (see "Nuclear arms programme charge against Iran no sure thing", 28 January 2012). Some recent inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), moreover, have revealed little of concern.
China is both an important and a cautioning factor in the whole equation. It is the biggest customer for Iran’s oil and thus a very reluctant supporter of international sanctions against Tehran (see Antoaneta Becker, “China Looks Both Ways on Iranian Oil”, TerraViva/IPS, 2 February 2012). China is also well aware its strategic rival India is itself both a major market for Iran and maintaining its links with Tehran.
But if these developments would seem on the surface to work against confrontation, they are being outweighed by others that suggest almost that one or more of the major players is clearing a path to war (see Donald Macintyre, "Drums of war beat louder as Israel and Iran step up rhetoric", 3 February 2012).
The path to war
In particular there is a hardening of rhetoric against (as well as from within) Iran, from multiple sources. Here are but six examples, four from American and two from Israeli representatives:
* the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center publishes a widely quoted report urging Barack Obama’s administration to make threats of force against Iran more credible, including arming Israel with more GBU-31 “bunker-buster” bombs (see Meeting the Challenge: Stopping the Clock, 1 February 2012)
* the US’s director of national intelligence, James R Clapper Jr, says that Iran is more willing to strike within the continental United States (see Greg Miller, “Iran, perceiving threat from West, willing to attack on US soil, US intelligence report finds”, Washington Post, 31 January 2012)
* the US defence secretary Leon Panetta refuses to backtrack on an attributed comment that an Israeli attack on Iran was likely by June 2012 (see "Panetta lets stand report that Israel may attack Iran by June", Ha'aretz, 3 February 2012)
* the experienced US negotiator and diplomat Dennis Ross cites the Israeli view of Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons as an "existential" threat to argue that Israel could "unilaterally" attack Iran within a definite "timeframe from their end" of "nine to twelve months" (see Alex Spillius, "Israel ready to attack Iran 'within months'", Telegraph, 2 February 2012)
* Israel’s deputy prime minister (and minister of strategic affairs), Moshe Ya'alon, says the Israeli military is capable of hitting all of Iran's nuclear sites (see "Vice PM: Military strike can destroy all of Iran's nuclear facilities", Ha'aretz, 3 February 2012)
* Israel’s head of military intelligence, Major-General Aviv Kochavi, estimates that around 200,000 missiles are targeted at Israel at any one time (see Amos Harel, "Some 200, 000 missiles aimed consistently at Israel, top IDF officer says", Ha’aretz, 2 February 2012). The great majority may be short-range unguided rockets held by Iran’s ally Hizbollah in Lebanon and militias in Gaza, thus the comment links a range of threats (see Con Coughlin, "Israel will not pull out of the next Middle East war until Hizbollah is annihiliated", Telegraph, 2 February 2012).
Several columns in this decade-long series, since 2005 especially, have identified the danger of armed conflict being triggered by the Israel-United States-Iran nexus; all, however, have insisted that even escalating tensions do not make war inevitable or imminent. Yet the mix of incidents and statements during the past week do suggest that a “ratchet effect” is underway, which at the very least prepares the way for a conflict and appears to render it the natural outcome - even if that is not the specific intention.
An additional and often missed aspect of this situation makes it even more worrying: namely, Israel’s calculation of the US’s political prospects. A notable shift is underway here, from the widespread expectation that President Obama would find it very difficult to be re-elected to a view - shared privately even among leading Republicans - that, especially if more positive economic trends persist, he is becoming more of a favourite.
Israel thus, more acutely than ever, must assess the “risk” a second Obama victory in November 2012 may pose to its - and especially the more hawkish elements in its political and military establishment - perceived security interests. For example, that the president will in the precious first two years of his second term exert sustained pressure on Israel to settle the Palestinian issue, in ways that will make confrontation with Iran increasingly problematic. For those in Israel who see in Iran and its nuclear plans an existential threat, the logic of curbing its ambitions as far as possible is intimately bound up with the US’s electoral timetable - a calculation that points in the direction of taking action by around September 2012 at the latest.
If these current factors are considered together - including Israeli and US statements, and (again) the very unusual deployment of three carrier battle-groups within reach of Iran for the next several months - the risk of war with Iran does seem closer now than at any time since the early months of 2006.