US Deploys Nuclear Submarine in Mideast Amid Iran Tension

(Bloomberg) -- The US military revealed Saturday that it has deployed a nuclear-powered submarine in the Middle East in a show of force amid rising tensions with Iran.

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The USS Florida — capable of carrying as many as 154 Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles — began transiting the Suez Canal from the Mediterranean Sea on Friday, according to the US Naval Forces Central Command, which is based in Bahrain in the Persian Gulf.

The submarine is being deployed in support of the US Fifth Fleet, which is also based in Bahrain, to “ensure regional maritime security and stability,” said Commander Tim Hawkins, spokesman for the US Naval Forces Central Command.

Hawkins declined to provide further details on the mission or its timing, or to specify whether the submarine was headed to the Persian Gulf.

It’s extremely rare for the US military to publicize movements of its nuclear-powered submarines. In October US Central Command (Centcom) announced a visit by its chief General Michael Kurilla to a ballistic missile submarine in the Arabian Sea. Before that it was a guided-missile submarine transiting the Strait of Hormuz in late December 2020.

Iran’s Capabilities

The latest US effort follows increased attacks in recent months on US troops and their allies in Iraq and Syria. US commanders have also warned about Iran’s expanded missile capabilities and nuclear enrichment activities, and the grave threat this poses to the interests of the US and its allies.

It also comes in the context of an escalation in Israel’s shadow war with Iran and major geopolitical shifts in the Middle East.

Worried that any of this might jeopardize its grand economic plans, Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter and Washington’s main Gulf Arab ally, is now seeking cooperation with Iran, pivoting toward China, and forging a closer alliance with Moscow, especially on oil policy. Meanwhile, the US and its Western allies have pressed on with their efforts to isolate and weaken Russia after it invaded Ukraine last year.

Read more: Understanding the Shadow War Between Israel and Iran: QuickTake

As the USS Florida headed for the Middle East, Israel on Friday bombarded sites in the Gaza Strip that it said belonged to the Iran-allied Hamas militant group. The smaller Palestinian Islamic Jihad, fully supported by Iran, claimed responsibility for a barrage of rockets fired the day before at northern Israel from neighboring Lebanon, which is dominated by the Iran-backed Hezbollah group. The latest wave of violence was triggered by clashes between Israeli police and Muslim worshipers at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque.

Days before, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps vowed to avenge the killing of two of its commanders in Syria in what it said were Israeli air strikes. And on March 23, an Iranian-made drone launched by groups tied to the IRGC hit a US military facility in Hasakah in northeast Syria, killing a US contractor and wounding five soldiers, prompting retaliatory US air strikes, according to the Pentagon.

Read more: Drone Strike Strains Biden’s ‘No Deal-No Crisis’ Iran Stance

The US has about 900 soldiers left in northeast Syria. The area is controlled by an allied Kurdish-led militia that constituted the bulk of the ground force in the US-led campaign to defeat the terror group known as Islamic State.

War-ravaged Syria is de facto partitioned. President Bashar Al-Assad holds the most territory, with the support of Iran, its allied militias, and Russian forces, while Turkey and allied rebel groups control sections of the north and northwest.

“Iran’s malign behavior has increased in the last two years,” Gen. Kurilla, the Centcom commander, said in testimony to the US Senate Armed Services Committee last month.

‘Diverse Missile Arsenal’

Kurilla said “Iran of 2023 is not the Iran of 1983,” calling Tehran “exponentially more capable” of striking anywhere in the Middle East with the region’s “largest and most diverse missile arsenal.”

While the US has officially welcomed the “calming effect” a Saudi-Iran rapprochement could have on the region, it was said to have been taken aback by Riyadh’s decision to include China as guarantor, as well as its embrace of Assad, Iran’s main Arab ally, who is heavily sanctioned by the US over war atrocities.

Further fueling Washington’s concerns was the decision by Saudi Arabia to join as “dialogue partner” the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a China-led security and defense bloc whose members include Iran and Russia.

Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the Chatham House think tank, says there’s nothing contradictory between Iran seeking to repair ties with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab powers, while at the same time escalating its covert war against the US and Israel.

“That’s right out of Iran’s playbook,” she said.

Vakil said there was “a lot of hubris” in Tehran at the moment, with many elements of the regime feeling triumphant that they have not only withstood the US policy of “encirclement and maximum pressure” but have actually now driven a wedge between the US and its main Arab ally Saudi Arabia.

“It’s vindication of their decades-long objective of pushing the US out of the region,” she said.

(Updates with more detail from sixth paragraph.)

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