Looking down from the captain's deck some six stories high, the flight deck of the USS Nimitz is an impressive sight indeed: 80 sleek warplanes armed with bombs and missiles are poised for takeoff at any minute, day or night. The sight of these planes coming and going from that 1,100-foot-long flight deck is almost beyond description. I can attest to this, having sailed on the Nimitz 25 years ago as a reporter for Mother Jones magazine.
Today, the Nimitz is rapidly approaching the Persian Gulf, where it will join two other U.S. aircraft carriers and the French carrier Charles De Gaulle in the largest concentration of naval firepower in the region since the launching of the U.S. invasion of Iraq four years ago.
Why this concentration now? Officially, the Nimitz is on its way to the Gulf to replace the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, which is due to return to the United States for crew leave and ship maintenance after months on station. But the U.S. Central Command (Centcom), which exercises command authority over all U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf area, refuses to say when the Eisenhower will actually depart -- or even when the Nimitz will arrive.
For a time, at least, the United States will have three carrier battle groups in the region. The USS John C. Stennis is the third. Each carrier is accompanied by a small flotilla of cruisers, destroyers, submarines, and support vessels, many equipped with Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles (TLAMs). Minimally, this gives modern meaning to the classic imperial term "gunboat diplomacy," which makes it all the stranger that the deployment of the Nimitz is covered in our media, if at all, as the most minor of news stories. And when the Nimitz sailed off into the Pacific last month on its way to the Gulf, it simply disappeared off media radar screens like some classic "lost patrol."
Rest assured, unlike us, the Iranians have noticed. After all, with the arrival of the Nimitz battle group, the Bush administration will be -- for an unknown period of time -- in an optimal position to strike Iran with a punishing array of bombs and missiles should the President decide to carry out his oft-repeated threat to eliminate Iran's nuclear program through military action. "All options," as the administration loves to say, remain ominously "on the table."
Meanwhile, negotiations to resolve the impasse with Iran over its pursuit of uranium-enrichment technology -- a possible first step to the manufacture of nuclear weapons -- continue at the United Nations in New York and in various European capitals. So far, the Iranians have refused to give any ground, claiming that their activities are intended for peaceful uses only and so are permitted under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), of which it is a signatory. The United States has made vague promises of improved relations if and when Iran terminates its nuclear program, but the full burden of making initial concessions falls on Tehran.
Just this weekend, a conference in Egypt, called by Iraqi officials to explore regional approaches to stability in the region (with Iranian officials expected to be in attendance), was being viewed in Washington as yet another opportunity to pressure Tehran to be more submissive to the West's demands on a wide range of issues, including Iranian support for Shiite militias in Iraq.
President Bush keeps insisting that he would like to see these "diplomatic" endeavors -- as he describes them -- succeed, but he has yet to bring up a single proposal or incentive that might offer any realistic prospect of eliciting a positive Iranian response.
And so, knowing that his "diplomatic" efforts are almost certain to fail, Bush may simply be waiting for the day when he can announce to the American people that he has "tried everything"; that "his patience has run out"; and that he can "no longer risk the security of the American people" by "indulging in further fruitless negotiations," thereby allowing the Iranians "to proceed farther down the path of nuclear bomb-making," and so has taken the perilous but necessary step of ordering American forces to conduct air and missile strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities. At that point, the 80 planes aboard the Nimitz -- and those on the Eisenhower and the Stennis as well -- will be on their way to targets in Iran, along with hundreds of TLAMs and a host of other weapons now being assembled in the Gulf.
Michael T. Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and author of Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America's Growing Dependency on Imported Petroleum.
Copyright 2007 Michael T. Klare