Even as President Barack Obama was in Kabul to meet overnight with Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai to ink a strategic arrangement between the two countries over the U.S. military drawdown, and its continued diminished presence in the Central Asian country, the Pentagon is weighing contingency plans for war with Iran. Based in Florida, the U.S. Central Command is capable of destroying or significantly degrading Iran’s armed forces in just three weeks by using the air and maritime assets at its disposal.

Even now, the U.S. is stepping up its presence in the Persian Gulf, maintaining two aircraft carriers in the region as well as increasing the number of mine-detection vessels and helicopters. By strewing with sea mines the Strait of Hormuz and to the Arabian Sea - a strategic chokepoint through which petroleum-laden ships must pass on their way through the Gulf to the open sea -  Iran would thereby seal off approximately one-fifth  of the world’s oil supply and cause significant worldwide economic disruption.

Aviation Week has reported that the Air Force  has sent in its first-line stealth strike fighter, the F-22 Raptor, to a base in the United Arab Emirates, less than 200 miles across the Gulf from Iran. Iran’s defense minister, Gen. Ahmed Vahdi, said on April 30 that the deployment of the Raptors to theatre “is a harmful action and damages regional security." Gen. Vahidi characterized the move as “psychological warfare," on the part of the U.S., while averring that American military presence in the region "...will bear no fruit except insecurity and complications."  The Raptors, the United States’ most advanced warplanes, are equipped with rockets and laser-guided munitions that could unleash havoc in Iran by striking military installations, oil refineries and fuel depots, as well as transportation hubs, as did US Air Force and Navy Fighting Falcons and Hornets did during the initial phase of the Second Iraq War.

According to the Washington Times, the U.S. military is trying to keep its cards close to its vest, despite the visible deployment of air and naval forces. A spokesman for U.S. Central Command, which has overall military responsibilities in the Gulf region, said that his superiors would not discuss their plans. “We plan for any eventuality we can and provide options to the president,” Lieutenant colonel T. G. Taylor said. “We take our guidance from the secretary of defense and from our civilian bosses in D.C. So any kind of guidance they give us, that’s what we go off of.” The U.S. military conducts dozens of large-scale exercises and contingency plans all over the world in order to address the orders of the president.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said last week that he hopes that statements from Israel's Chief of Staff Lt. General Benny Gantz were "correct". Gantz had said that the Iranian leadership "is composed of very rational people," that has not yet decided whether to proceed on its nuclear weaponization plans that have brought about U.S. and EU sanctions.

The economic sanctions on Iran enforced by the U.S. have already had effect. As head of international affairs for the National Iranian Oil Company, Mohsen Qamsari said on May 2, “I say decisively that Saudi Arabia cannot replace Iran’s oil in the oil market,” while claiming that there continues to be a high demand for Iranian crude. He also said that the Islamic Republic has renewed its oil contracts with most of the Japanese refineries for the 2012, rejecting the claim that Iranian oil exports to Japan have been reduced by 80 percent, saying Japan currently imports about 220,000 barrels of oil per day from Iran.  

Independent observers have filled in the scenario for Iran, however, according Vienna-based JBC Energy GmbH, Iran's crude output has fallen to 3.2 million barrels per day in April. This represents a drop of 150,000 barrels per day in just two months. This output represents the lowest levels for Iran in 20 years.

Observers note that this is the lowest level since the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq War in 1990, underscoring the effect of the current sanctions on Iran’s coffers. Oil and gas account for more than half of Iran’s export revenue. The decline is "the result of the country's growing isolation due to its nuclear program," JBC Energy said. Oil-field production has been hindered by sanctions that prohibit American and European countries from investment or technology transfers. The EU is planning to ban importing Iranian crude.

 For its part, Iran’s coast guard is carrying out exercises in the Persian Gulf. National Police Chief Esmaeil Ahmadi-Moqaddam and National Border Police Commander Hossein Zolfaqari visited Bandar Abbas on May 2 during the final stage of maneuvers. The coast guard forces, according to official Iranian news sources, are practicing rescues and smuggling prevention. Eighty units of coast guards and commandos and dozens of vessels are involved.
 

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Spero News writer Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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