The US has dispatched a carrier strike group and a bomber task force to the Arabian Gulf in response to intelligence reports indicating that Iran is moving short-range ballistic missiles aboard civilian boats in Gulf waters.
These reports were one strand of multiple threads of intelligence from various sources that indicated Iran's readiness to launch strikes against US targets.
Iranian missiles loaded on small boats in the Gulf were among the "threats" that have triggered a beefed-up military deployment in the region, a US official said Thursday (May 16th).
"The missiles on civilian boats are a concern," the official, who asked not to be named, told AFP.
An earlier report in the New York Times said aerial photos from US intelligence agencies showed traditional boats carrying Iranian missiles in the Gulf.
The fully-assembled missiles were loaded on the boats by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which the US has designated a foreign terrorist organisation, the newspaper reported.
"What the military and the intelligence are concerned about is the intent," the US official told AFP.
On Wednesday, the US ordered the evacuation of non-emergency staff from its Baghdad embassy and consulate in Erbil, citing an "imminent" threat from Iranian-linked armed groups in Iraq.
Senior US State Department officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the threat came from Iraqi militia "commanded and controlled" by the IRGC.
"It is directly linked to Iran, multiple threat streams directly linked to Iran," said one official.
"This is an imminent threat to our personnel," said a second official.
Several B-52 Stratofortress bombers are heading to the region with a task force following what the Pentagon called "recent and clear indications that Iranian and Iranian proxy forces were making preparations to possibly attack US forces".
"The deployment of the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and a bomber task force are considered a prudent step in response to indications of heightened Iranian readiness to conduct offensive operations against US forces and our interests," acting Pentagon spokesman Charles Summers said in a statement.
"We emphasize the White House statement that we do not seek war with the Iranian regime, but we will defend US personnel, our allies and our interests in the region," he said.
The US military deployment follows an escalation of non-military measures that seek in part to curtail the IRGC's intervention in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, political analysts in the region told Al-Mashareq.
In addition to the IRGC terror designation, these include a raft of sanctions on entities and individuals, including financiers, affiliated with the IRGC and with Lebanon's Hizbullah, which is backed by Iran.
They also include the imposition of sanctions on Iranian oil and metal industries, including iron, steel and aluminum, Bahraini journalist Tamam Abu Safi said.
"The military action is part of a comprehensive political, economic and military campaign," she told Al-Mashareq.
Since the imposition of sanctions, she said, several intelligence reports have revealed Iran is moving ballistic missiles that could potentially strike US targets.
"Iran's threats to strike US targets in the Arabian Gulf are plausible," Bahraini journalist Ibrahim al-Naham told Al-Mashareq.
The US move, a precautionary step to protect its interests and the security of its Gulf allies amid escalating tensions "is an expected consequence of Iran's malign actions against neighbouring countries and the coalition", al-Naham said.
'Climate of escalation'
The dispatch of the carrier strike group and B-52 bombers comes amid "the continuing climate of escalation between the US and Iran", said Lebanese strategy expert Richard Dagher.
The US deployment "conveyed a warning to Iran that any attack by Iran directly or through its affiliates on US interests or its allies in the region will be met with unrelenting force", he told Al-Mashareq.
It is clearly intended to prevent Iran from "militarily targeting or endangering the security of its forces in the region or its allies", he added.
The US deployment "is not only for the purpose of monitoring, but also to take action in the event Iran makes the mistake of working to undermine stability in the Middle East", said Hussein Ezzedine of Lebanon's Assembly for Sovereignty.
The Assembly for Sovereignty is a grassroots movement to counter Iran-backed Hizbullah's influence that seeks to mobilise the public against the party.
"There is a clear context for the events that led to the dispatch of the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier to the Gulf waters," political analyst Tony Issa told Al-Mashareq.
This includes intelligence that Iran may target US interests in the Middle East.
In the view of many observers, it is difficult for Iran to venture the risk of targeting US interests, whether through the IRGC or allied groups elsewhere in the region, because it knows the consequences of doing so, Issa said.
The dispatch of the US aircraft carrier "sends a message to the Iranians that their margin for military maneuver is very slim", Issa said.