- - Wednesday, January 14, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

With all the core elements of Iran’s nuclear weapons program now guaranteed and secured by the one-sided concessions made by the United States and agreed to by the other P5 plus 1 negotiators in the 2013 interim agreement, Iran is on track to achieve a deliverable nuclear weapons capability.

Iran is already a threshold nuclear state, which the negotiators were supposed to prevent. All the hype over progress being made by our negotiators is a sham. Furthermore, with no restrictions imposed on Iran’s missile programs, they have made significant progress on both their regional and intercontinental missile capability, with help from North Korea and other allies such as China.

Even though Iran is now more involved in attacks on the Islamic State, its continuous support for the regime of Bashar Assad fighting Syrian rebel militias, Iran continues to flex its military muscle in other areas. For example, with Iran now a threshold nuclear state, Brig. Gen. Hussein Salami, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps deputy commander, boasted on Dec. 19 that Iran had the ability to target aircraft carriers using their supersonic missiles. In the confined waters of the Persian Gulf, that is a given. Our major combatant ships are clearly exposed to Iran’s upgraded missile capability. Reaction time by our naval forces is significantly reduced. This is further complicated by the fact that crews cannot be kept on a high state of alert for extended periods. That is self-defeating.

Even with the Obama administration’s appeasement approach to Iran clearly on display during the ongoing negotiations, the potential for such a missile attack or “another hand of God” attack by a submarine-launched torpedo or mine should not be cavalierly dismissed. While regime survival is always foremost in any potential Iranian action initiated against our forces, complacency in the established pattern of our operations over the last decade must be a tempting target for the Iranian theocracy. Tehran has been at war with the United States for more than 35 years. Even when Iran was in a life-and-death struggle with Iraq in a devastating eight-year war, Iran continued to conduct attacks against our forces in the Persian Gulf and throughout the region, such as the 1983 U.S. Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, plus a host of other directed actions. However, even when we had proof positive of Iran’s direct involvement, every administration, be it Democratic or Republican, could not find the political courage to respond.

In late August 1987, we had plans to totally shut down Iran, but could not get authority to execute them. This was a tragic political mistake. In a Jan. 5 article, John Hannah from the Foundation of Defense of Democracies states that when the cruiser USS Vincennes accidentally shot down an Iranian civilian airliner in July 1988, killing all 290 aboard, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini quickly sued for peace with Saddam Hussein. Khomeini thought the United States was entering the war on Iraq’s side and that the Iranian theocracy would be doomed.

If the inadvertent destruction of one civilian airliner could produce such a dramatic response, think of what the results would have been had we been able to execute our devastating August 1987 strike plan. The Khomeini theocracy, with its widespread unpopularity, most likely would have collapsed and wound up on the ash heap of history, and we would have a different Middle East today.

Symbols matter in the Middle East. Our Fifth Fleet commander has to assume that our carriers and other major combatants when operating in the Persian Gulf are being constantly targeted by a variety of Iranian forces, including land-based missile sites and submarines. Should Iran be tempted in any way to strike our aircraft carriers, the message that needs to be sent is, “Don’t even think about it.” If such an attack occurred, we should consider it the equivalent of a direct attack on the continental United States. Our response should involve the full weight of our military capability, and the Iranian theocracy would cease to exist.

With the cessation of U.S. offensive operations in Afghanistan and the limited tactical air strikes being conducted against the Islamic State and rebels militias, the threat environment has changed. Furthermore, we now have expanded land-based tactical air assets spread throughout the region, which should be more than sufficient to execute the current air campaign. Therefore, the pattern of continuously keeping carrier strike groups in the region should be reviewed. Every mission does not have to be “joint,” involving multiple services. This policy is an outgrowth of the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act, which needs to be updated and revised to meet today’s changing threat environment.

With the ongoing civil war in Libya, as well as the fighting in Syria and Iraq, a redeployment of the carrier strike group along with an amphibious ready group to the Mediterranean would dramatically change the strategic equation. The carrier air wing could easily provide strikes against the Islamic State in Syria, as well as in Iraq. It would also challenge Turkish noncooperative policies of preventing NATO’s land-based tactical air assets from conducting strikes against the Islamic State and send a positive message of support to Egypt.

It would put additional pressure on the Assad regime to move toward a negotiated settlement, as well as send a strong signal to Vladimir Putin about his game plan for southern Europe and Ukraine. Let’s take complacency out of the equation and maintain the initiative.

James A. Lyons, a U.S. Navy retired admiral, was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations.

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