"Iran is the major destabilizing influence in the Middle East, and we aim to fix that," U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CNBC on Saturday. "What we've seen from the Iranians is increased threats... it's real... and it appears to be current."
Earlier on Saturday, Iran's state Press TV headlined President Hassan Rouhani's claims that the country is "facing all-out-war," with its leadership rallying the population as tensions escalate. "Rouhani," reported Press TV, "said the current wave of pressure on Iran is even more difficult than the one experienced during the Iran-Iraq war period," and the country "needs unity and cohesiveness at the time of increased political and economic pressure, which he described as unprecedented in the history of the country since the Islamic revolution of 1979."
A day earlier, on Friday, Ayatollah Yousef Tabatabai Nejad was reported by Iran's ISNA news agency as taunting the dispatch of the U.S. carrier group. "Their billion-dollar fleet can be destroyed with one missile," he said during Friday prayers. "If they attempt any move, they will [see] dozens of missiles because at that time officials won’t be in charge to act cautiously, but instead things will be in the hands of our beloved leader."
The same day, the IRGC’s deputy head for political affairs Yadollah Javani was equally provocative, quoted by the Tasnim news agency as saying that "no talks will be held with the Americans and the Americans will not dare take military action against us," in response to President Trump's public call for talks and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's assurance of a swift and decisive response to any attack by Iran.
On Sunday, a senior figure in the IRGC's leadership echoed the missile threat even more provocatively. Amirali Hajiadeh told the ISNA agency that "an aircraft carrier that has at least 40 to 50 planes on it and 6,000 forces gathered within it was a serious threat for us in the past. But now, the threats have switched to opportunities."
The U.S. has been building up forces in the region, with news over the weekend that USS Arlington has been sent to add Patriot missile-defence systems to the carrier group and bomber task force. This came in response to "indications of heightened Iranian readiness to conduct offensive operations against US forces," the Department of Defense said, and intelligence reports the IRGC has been loading equipment and missiles onto small boats. The U.S. also shared images of B-52 bombers arriving at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar on Thursday. Others had landed at an undisclosed location, within range, a day before.
Last week, Fars reported Brigadier General Kiomars Heidar, commander of Iran's ground forces, claiming that the country's armed forces are enjoying "full readiness in face of any potential foreign threat." He said that "Iranian armed forces have managed to ensure a real deterrent military power against foreign threats, and they have shown this power to the enemies."
On Friday, the U.S. Maritime Administration warned American merchant vessels of the potential threat to commercial shipping from escalating tensions with Iran. "Since early May, there is an increased possibility that Iran and/or its regional proxies could take action against U.S. and partner interests, including oil production infrastructure. After recently threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz Iran or its proxies could respond by targeting commercial vessels, including oil tankers, or U.S. military vessels in the Red Sea, Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, or the Persian Gulf."
The commander of the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command told Reuters he would bring the USS Abraham Lincoln through the Strait of Hormuz if needed. "I’m not restricted in any way, I’m not challenged in any way, to operate her anywhere in the Middle East," Vice Admiral Jim Malloy said.
Iran's President Rouhani’s talk of "all-out-war" was a reference to sanctions and tightening economic and political pressure, rather than anything wholly military. Last week, President Trump added new sanctions targeting steel, aluminum, copper and iron, and warned of Iran of "further actions unless it fundamentally alters its conduct". But behind Rouhani’s rallying call over the economic and political campaign being waged against Iran, there is now a steady flow of hot-headed statements being made public by Iran’s military leadership, and these are being digested in the U.S. Ultimately there is a political calculation being made in Teheran as to how far the U.S. is really willing to go, and so how hard they can push.
Also last week, European governments said that they remained "committed" to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the so-called Iranian nuclear deal, but "rejected any ultimatums" from Tehran and had "great concerns", over the country's threat to step up uranium enrichment if it was not protected from the sanctions.
Another week, another ratchet. Iran is rallying its population and risks trapping itself into taking action. It is becoming ever more firmly cornered now by the combination of the U.S. sanctions and show of force. It will not take much now to light the powder keg.
It is becoming likely that we will see taunts and provocations from Iran, and then it will be down to the level of U.S. response. All the evidence suggests that such a response could escalate quickly.
"Our aim is not war, our aim is a change in the behavior of the Iranian leadership," Pompeo told CNBC. "We’ve done all the right things to increase our security posture to the best of our ability... but we also want to make sure that we had deterrent forces in place, so in the event that Iran decided to come after an American interest — whether that be in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Yemen, or any place in the Middle East - we were prepared to respond to them in an appropriate way."
The fear now is that the word "appropriate" is about to get a runout.