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In threat to Iran, US sends heavy bombers to Middle East via Israel

Move comes amid reports and speculation Trump administration may take military action against Tehran before Biden enters office

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

A B-52 heavy bomber, flanked by fighter jets, flies to the Middle East in a tacit threat to Iran on November 21, 2020. (US Air Force/Facebook)
A B-52 heavy bomber, flanked by fighter jets, flies to the Middle East in a tacit threat to Iran on November 21, 2020. (US Air Force/Facebook)

The United States this week rapidly deployed several heavy bombers to the Middle East this week in an apparent threat to Iran, amid swirling speculation that US President Donald Trump plans to take military action against Tehran before President-elect Joe Biden enters office.

US Central Command said the planes were sent into the region “to deter aggression and reassure US partners and allies.”

In a highly irregular move, the B-52H Stratofortress planes were seen flying toward Israeli airspace on Saturday en route to the base where they will be stationed, likely in Qatar. The aircraft were spotted on civilian tracking software approaching Israel before they apparently turned off their transponders, rendering them invisible on those applications.

It was the third time in the past year and a half that B-52 bombers, which are capable of carrying nuclear weapons and other powerful munitions, have been deployed to the region in tacit threats to Iran.

In previous cases, the bombers were not seeing flying through Israeli airspace. It was not immediately clear what accounted for the change in route.

An airplane takes off for the Middle East in tacit threat to Iran from Minot Air Base in North Dakota, US, on November 21, 2020. (US Air Force)

The planes were ordered on short notice to fly to the Middle East nonstop from their home base in North Dakota, refueling along the way in mid-air. The bombers were accompanied on the mission by F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, as well as KC-10 and KC-135 refueling planes, US Central Command (CENTCOM) said.

“The ability to quickly move forces into, out of and around the theater to seize, retain and exploit the initiative is key to deterring potential aggression,” Lt. Gen. Greg Guillot, commander of the US military’s 9th Air Force, said in a statement.

The general said deploying bombers to the region allows their crews to better acquaint themselves with the area and work better with local units.

“These missions help bomber aircrews gain familiarity with the region’s airspace and command and control functions and allow them to integrate with the theater’s US and partner air assets, increasing the combined force’s overall readiness,” Guillot said.

The US has previously deployed B-52 bombers to the region during periods of heightened tensions. This occurred in early 2020 after the US killed top Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani in an airstrike in Iraq. The strategic aircraft were also sent to the region in May 2019, when Iran allegedly attacked a number of US allies in the Persian Gulf and shot down an American spy drone that flew near its airspace.

A B-52 heavy bomber prepares for takeoff before flying to the Middle East in tacit threat to Iran from Minot Air Base in North Dakota, US, on November 21, 2020. (Jesse Jenny/US Air Force)

The deployment of the long-range heavy bombers came amid reports that the Trump administration — and Israel — planned to carry out military operations against Iran before Biden enters office. The US president-elect is expected to take a somewhat softer, more diplomatic approach than Trump, who pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal world powers signed with Iran and employed a so-called “maximum pressure” campaign of heavy economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic.

Though analysts say this effort has created leverage for future negotiations, the tactic has not yet borne fruit in terms of halting Iran’s nuclear efforts — indeed the Islamic Republic has amassed far more nuclear material and at higher levels of enrichment under the campaign — nor has it curbed Tehran’s regional hegemony ambitions.

Biden, who was vice president to Barack Obama when the 2015 accord was signed, has said that he plans to return to the agreement as a basis for further negotiations with Iran.

The Trump administration is reportedly planning a bevy of wide-ranging sanctions on Iran to make it more difficult for the incoming administration to rejoin the nuclear deal.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited the region over the past week, including a stop in Israel, in which he told the Jerusalem Post that the US would consider a military strike against Iran.

“The administration has been clear on that for its entire four years. There is no reason that would change today or tomorrow,” Pompeo said.

Last Friday, Channel 13 reported that Israel and the US were planning to increase pressure on Iran with “covert operations” and economic sanctions during Trump’s final weeks in office. Jerusalem and Washington assess that Tehran will not respond militarily before the end of Trump’s term, according to the unsourced report.

The report did not elaborate on the nature of actions that may be taken.

Among other covert operations against Iran’s rogue nuclear program, Israel and the US were reportedly responsible for introducing the Stuxnet computer virus to sabotage parts of Iran’s nuclear enrichment process a decade ago, and for more recent sabotage attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities. Israel’s Mossad spy agency spirited out a vast trove of Iranian documentation regarding the regime’s nuclear program, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revealed in 2018. Israel has also been linked in reports to the killings of several Iranian nuclear scientists, and last week The New York Times reported that Israeli agents killed Al-Qaeda’s No. 2 Abu Muhammad al-Masri in Tehran in August at the behest of the US.

Last Monday, the Times reported that Trump had asked top advisers if he had options to strike Iranian nuclear sites during his last weeks in office, but was dissuaded with warnings it could lead to a wider conflict. Trump convened the officials a day after the UN nuclear watchdog said Iran had stockpiled over 12 times more enriched uranium than the 2015 nuclear deal allows, the report said, citing four current and former US officials.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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