The last week has seen many reports about Iranian naval exercises in the Persian Gulf. At the same time, the United States has increased its rhetoric against the Iranian regime. The president has pledged to withdraw from the nuclear agreement with Iran (technically called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA), has reimposed sanctions on Iran, and appears to be in a tweeting feud with the Iranian leadership.
So, is the United States going to war with Iran?
Here are five indicators of military preparation to watch for. These show whether the U.S. military believes it is going to war because they are based on the kind of preparations the United States has made before previous conflicts in the region. (Note: It’s always possible that the Iranians would launch a surprise attack for which the U.S. was not prepared so conflict could arise even without these indicators).
Increased activity at the U.S. air bases in Qatar and Diego Garcia. The United States maintains large air facilities in both Qatar (Al-Udeid airbase) and on the island of Diego Garcia in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Both facilities were used extensively in the Iraq wars of 1991 and the 2003 and continue to be used for air operations in support of the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Because the initial strikes against Iran would be naval and air, these airbases would be the hub of U.S. strikes, with the possible addition of Bahrain, depending on its internal politics. (The ruling family is Sunni, but the majority of the population are Shia, so domestic tensions may prevent its direct participation).
Reinforced security at U.S. bases in the Middle East. Iran has extensive irregular and commando forces that it could unleash against U.S. bases during a conflict. Anticipating that, the United States would move in troops to increase security of its bases across the region, especially in Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar because they border the Persian Gulf. These reinforcements would be ground forces of some sort but solely for local security. It’s unlikely that the United States would launch any ground operations, at least in the initial phases of a conflict.
Iranian complaints about reconnaissance overflights. Before any conflict, the United States would increase its reconnaissance over Iran to pinpoint targets for later attack. The United States would try to keep this effort inconspicuous so some intelligence would come from low observable/stealth means and some from satellites. Nevertheless, some overflights would be visible. Iran would notice the increase in activity and would certainly complain about violations of its airspace.
Evacuation of U.S. civilians and military dependents from Bahrain. The U.S. Navy maintains a permanent base in Bahrain, called the “Naval Support Activity.” Because Bahrain is both strongly opposed to Iran, and because it is so close to Iran, it would certainly be swept up in any conflict, even if, as noted earlier, it did not participate directly. Thus, if a war were threatening, military authorities would pull dependents out.
Increased U.S. naval activity. U.S. naval activity in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean areas has declined over the last several years as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have moderated and demands in the Pacific have increased. Therefore, the Navy would need to surge ships into the region in order to conduct the level of operations that a conflict with Iran would require.
So far, despite all the sharp rhetoric, there have been no reports that any of these indicators actually occurring, so Americans can probably relax. However, these indicators are worth keeping an eye on if tensions should escalate, particularly as they begin to bite, and Iran faces internal instability.