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US Aircraft Carrier Has No Plans To Intimidate Iran

File photo of The USS John C. Stennis, seen here accompanied by the HMS Illustrious.
by Christian Chaise
On Board The USS John C. Stennis off the coast of Pakistan (AFP) Feb 25, 2007
To the deafening roar of war planes taking off from the nuclear-powered US aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis, US military commanders insist that intimidating Iran is not part of their mission in the region. The carrier and its battle group has been in the Gulf of Oman since February 19, anchored about 120 nautical miles off the coast of Pakistan, in what the US Navy says is a mission to provide support for ground forces operating in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Stennis has joined the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower in the area, fuelling speculation that Washington could be preparing for a military strike against arch-foe Iran over its controversial nuclear programme.

But the carrier's commanding officer Captain Bradley E. Johanson said the vessel was in the region to reassure Washington's key oil-rich Arab allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council.

"We have received very explicit guidance that we will not assume any sort of escalatory posture with Iran," Johanson told AFP as an F/A-18F Super Hornet took off heading north in the direction of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

On the flight deck, which is over 300 metres (yards) long, dozens of sailors worked non-stop to prepare for the take-off of the next fighter jet whose engine was roaring in anticipation.

"No sort of escalatory posture at all with Iran," Johanson reiterated. "Our mission is not to go and intimidate Iran. Our mission is to go and make the GCC partner-nations comfortable with the security situation."

However, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said in January that reinforcing the US naval presence in the oil-rich region was a message to Iran, which has defied the international community over its nuclear drive.

Tehran last week failed to meet a UN Security Council deadline to freeze uranium enrichment, a process that is at the heart of Western fears it may be seeking to built atomic weapons, and risks further sanctions.

On Saturday, US Vice President Dick Cheney said that allowing Iran to acquire nuclear weapons would be a "serious mistake" and that all options remained on the table, in apparent reference to a possible use of force.

"The nice thing about my position is I don't have to explain what the Secretary of Defence said," said Rear Admiral Kevin M. Quinn, commander of Carrier Strike Group Three, formed by the Stennis and its battle group.

"There was no word in my tasking to come over here that had anything to do with Iran," he told AFP.

Iran, which has seen its regional influence soar since the US-led invasion of March 2003 that ousted Saddam Hussein's regime, has also played down the possibility of military action by the United States while boasting it could confront any attack.

The two nations have had hostile relations since the 1979 Islamic revolution ousted the US-backed shah and Tehran has been lumped by US President George W. Bush into his "axis of evil".

Quinn said his mission was to support coalition operations in Afghanistan, where the Super Hornets made their first sorties on Friday following a series of exercises.

Stennis has about 3,000 sailors, plus 1,800 servicemen deployed exclusively in air operations.

Quinn however acknowledged that Washington's decision to dispatch a second carrier sent a message to the Gulf countries that stressed "the commitment that the US has to the security and stability of this entire region."

"When you have this level of naval force, you are showing resolve and you are showing commitment, and... (that) your country can be counted on," he added.

earlier related report
Israel denies seeking US go-ahead for Iran strike
Jerusalem (AFP) Feb 24 - Israel on Saturday denied a report in a British daily that it is seeking permission from the United States to fly its bombers over Iraq to attack Iran's nuclear facilities.

"There has never been such a request, it is obvious," Deputy Defence Minister Ephraim Sneh told public radio.

The Daily Telegraph quoted an unnamed senior Israeli defence official as saying that negotiations were taking place with the US-led coalition in Iraq to provide an "air corridor" over Iraq if the Jewish state decided on unilateral action.

"We are planning for every eventuality, and sorting out issues such as these are crucial," the official told the conservative British broadsheet in a dispatch from Tel Aviv.

"If we don't sort these issues out we could have a situation where American and Israeli war planes start shooting at each other."

Sneh put the report down to "international sources who wish to dodge dealing directly with Iran and invent reports that we allegedly want to attack Iraq in order to relieve themselves from the responsibility."

Iran's hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has in the past called for Israel to be wiped off the map.

But Israel has consistently said that the Iranian nuclear question should be solved by the international community and not the Jewish state alone, even though it refuses to rule out a preemptive strike against Iran.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) issued a report Thursday saying that Iran had not halted, and in fact had expanded, its uranium enrichment programme, defying a United Nations Security Council demand to stop by this week.

The United States, France and Britain have called for tougher Security Council sanctions on Tehran, while Germany, China and Russia have taken softer stances. Iran denies US charges that it seeks nuclear weapons.

An Israeli officer involved in the military planning told The Daily Telegraph: "One of the last issues we have to sort out is how we actually get to the targets in Iran. The only way to do this is to fly through US-controlled airspace in Iraq."

A senior Israeli security official who works on the strategic committee set up to deal with the Iran threat, chaired by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said: "The amount of effort we are putting into this single issue is unprecedented in the history of the State of Israel," the newspaper reported.

Israel is itself considered to be the sole nuclear weapons power in the Middle East. It does not officially acknowledge that it has an arsenal although Olmert appeared to do so in an apparent lapse last year.

Israeli warplanes in 1981 destroyed the Osirak nuclear reactor near Baghdad after suspecting Iraq of aiming to build nuclear weapons.

earlier related report
London (AFP) Feb 23 - Senior British government officials fear that US President George W. Bush will attack Iran before his final term in office ends in a little less than two years time, The Times reported on Friday.

They fear that Bush will seek to "settle the Iranian question through military means," the daily reported, quoting unidentified senior British government sources.

"He (Bush) will not want to leave it unresolved for his successor," one of the sources told The Times.

According to The Guardian daily, meanwhile, much of the intelligence provided by American agencies about Iran's nuclear facilities to UN inspectors has turned out to be unfounded.

Citing unnamed diplomatic sources in Vienna, the base for the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), most of the tip-offs about supposedly secret weapons sites have led to dead ends.

"Most of it has turned out to be incorrect," an unidentified diplomat at the IAEA with detailed knowledge of the agency's investigations told The Guardian.

"They gave us a paper with a list of sites. (The inspectors) did some follow-up, they went to some military sites, but there was no sign of (banned nuclear) activities."

"Now (the inspectors) don't go in blindly. Only if it passes a credibility test."

The reports follow comments made on Thursday by British Prime Minister Tony Blair who insisted there is "no planning" under way for an attack on Iran, and added that he knew of "nobody" in Washington who was planning an invasion either.

"You can't absolutely predict every set of circumstances that comes about but sitting here now talking to you, I can tell you Iran is not Iraq," Blair told BBC Radio.

"There is, as far as I know, no planning going on to make an attack on Iran and people are pursuing a diplomatic and political solution for a good reason -- that it is the only solution that anyone can think of as viable and sensible."

Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett also said on Thursday that Britain remained committed to a negotiated solution and would now consult with its international partners to find a way to prevent Iran acquiring the means to develop nuclear weapons.

Iran has failed to comply with a United Nations Security Council demand to halt uranium enrichment, according to a report issued by Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the IAEA.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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