ABOARD THE USS HARRY S. TRUMAN -- A month after the U.S. strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Iran's military is no longer on a heightened war footing, but the United States continues to brace for further retaliation, a senior military official said Sunday.
Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, who leads the U.S. Central Command, said Iran had "de-escalated" its ballistic missile force and brought its air-defense forces back to a "normal state of readiness" after its retaliatory strikes on bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq.
Watching fighter jets roar off the flight deck of the USS Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier, McKenzie said he believes the U.S. military presence is one of the reasons that Iran has dialed back its combat stance, at least for now.
"You're here because we don't want a war with Iran and nothing makes a potential adversary think twice about war than the presence of an aircraft carrier and the strike group that comes with it," McKenzie told the nearly 5,000 service members on board the 100,000-ton ship. "So we achieve deterrence, which is preventing Iran from starting a war."
Patrolling the North Arabian Sea, the Truman was about 150 miles from Iran when McKenzie and a small number of staff members flew aboard on Saturday. His overnight stay on the ship underscored his belief that the additional ships, aircraft, weapons systems and thousands of troops the U.S. has sent into the region in recent months have delivered a message.
Since Iran launched ballistic missiles at U.S. forces in Iraq in retaliation for the American drone strike that killed Soleimani, there has been a visible reduction in Tehran's military posture, McKenzie said.
Also, the level of harassment and other activity by Iran's naval forces around the congested Strait of Hormuz has been scaled back, he said.
The drone strike that killed Soleimani, the top general in Iran's Quds Force, showed that the U.S. is willing to take action, and the arrival of the Truman and the other warships underscored that, McKenzie said.
"When an aircraft carrier is in your neighborhood, you know it," said Navy Capt. Kavon Hakimzadeh, the Truman's commanding officer.
He said his ship left Norfolk, Va., in mid-November and "almost made a beeline for the Suez Canal."
Now, as they maneuver off the coast of Oman, a steady stream of fighter jets, surveillance aircraft and helicopters launch off the 4.5-acre flight deck, conducting a show of force that also allows them to keep up their training in case they are needed for combat.
"We're practicing our craft," said Hakimzadeh. "Our job is to fuel up, load up and launch airplanes. The only real change is whether or not the airplanes come back with bombs or not."
So far, they haven't dropped any bombs. Some of the ships are taking part in the maritime coalition that is safeguarding the Strait of Hormuz in the wake of Iranian attacks against commercial vessels last year. Others protect the carrier.
From the bridge, where McKenzie spoke to the crew over the ship's loudspeakers, he could look out at the horizon and see the USS Normandy. The warship stands as a sentry between the carrier and Iran. Out of view were four American Navy destroyers. Another warship loaded with Marines is in the Red Sea.
Despite widespread demands for U.S. Navy ships in other parts of the world, McKenzie requested and received a larger-than-usual naval presence in his area. Both the Truman and the USS Bataan assault ship steamed rapidly across the Mediterranean to get to the Gulf region, and in a somewhat rare move, one of the destroyers assigned to Europe, the USS Carney, was shifted south to join the Truman.
McKenzie and other commanders on the ship acknowledged that deterrence is a hard thing to measure.
But speaking to F/A-18 fighter pilots in their ready room, McKenzie mapped out the timeline. Last April and May, he said, Iranian leadership decided to begin more active offensive military operations in the region.
In the succeeding months, there were attacks on ships in the Gulf, a pipeline in Saudi Arabia and, on Sept. 14, strikes on Saudi oil facilities. The violence spurred U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper to beef up the U.S. military presence in the Gulf.
Esper, however, has made it clear that America's top defense priorities are threats from China and Russia, and he is looking to send more forces to the Pacific region. For McKenzie, that means frequent discussions with defense leaders about his assessment of the Iranian threat in the Middle East and why he needs the forces he has.
"You know what I associate with that period of time," said McKenzie, referring to early last spring. "There was no carrier" in the region.
While Iran has conducted no major direct attacks since the missile strikes, U.S. officials say they believe it may attempt to do so at a later date. McKenzie said it remains difficult to ascertain the intentions of Iranian leaders at this moment.
"You know, we went through a period of quiet before the Aramco attack in September. And I always remember that when I think about Iran's capability for action," he said, referring to the missile and drone assault on Saudi oil facilities. "That's very much in my mind as I think about what they are capable of doing, when they might do it and why they might do it."
Now, he said, there is a "rough kind of stability" in the region. But he is reluctant to say how long that will last or how long he will be able to hold onto the military might he's accumulated.
And over the loudspeaker, he made that uncertainty clear to the Truman crew.
"One thing I know everybody wants to know is how long you're gonna be here," he said. "So I'm gonna be honest with you: I don't know."
Information for this article was contributed by Lolita C. Baldor of The Associated Press and by Missy Ryan of The Washington Post.
Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, the U.S.’ top commander for the Middle East, watches flight operations Saturday on the USS Harry S. Truman in the North Arabian Sea.
A Section on 02/03/2020
Print Headline: Iran backed off war ideas, U.S. says