While quietly casting lines to draw Tehran into talks on their nuclear dispute, President Barack Obama is reported exclusively by DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military and Washington sources to have secretly ordered US air, naval and marine forces to build up heavy concentrations on two strategic islands – Socotra, which is part of a Yemeni archipelago in the Indian Ocean, and the Omani island of Masirah at the southern exit of the Strait of Hormuz.
Socotra is situated 80 kilometers east of the Horn of Africa and 380 kilometers southeast of the Yemeni coastline. It lies athwart the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. A military base there is in a position to oversee the shipping moving in and out of those strategic naval waterways.
Lushly verdant, Socotra is approximately 120 kilometers long by 40 kilometers wide. Its population of 55,000 has its own distinct language and culture. Since 2010, the US has been quietly building giant air force and naval bases on Socotra with facilities for submarines, intelligence command centers and take-off pads for flying stealth drones, as part of a linked chain of strategic US military facilities in the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf.
The Socotra facilities are so secret that they are never mentioned in any catalogue listing US military facilities in this part of the world, which include Jebel Ali and Al Dahfra in the United Arab Emirates; Arifjan in Kuwait; and Al Udeid in Qatar – all within short flying distances from Iran.
Additional US forces are also being poured into Camp Justice on the barren, 70-kilometer long Omani island of Masirah, just south of the Hormuz entry point to the Gulf of Oman from the Arabian Sea.
US military facilities were established there after the signing of an access agreement with Oman in 1980.
Up to 100,000 US troops present by early March
For the new buildup on Socotra, Washington had to negotiate a new deal with Yemen's ousted ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Injured in an assassination attempt last year, Saleh demanded permission to travel to the United States for medical treatment. The Obama administration first refused, then relented when Saleh made it his condition for consenting to additional troops landing on the island.
Western military sources familiar with the American buildup on the two strategic islands tellDEBKA-Net-Weekly that, although they cannot cite precise figures, they are witnessing the heaviest American concentration of might in the region since the US invaded Iraq in 2003.
Then, 100,000 American troops were massed in Kuwait ahead of the invasion. Today, those sources estimate from the current pace of arrivals on the two island bases, that 50,000 US troops will have accumulated on Socotra and Masirah by mid-February. They will top up the 50,000 military already present in the Persian Gulf region, so that in less than a month, Washington will have some 100,000 military personnel on the spot and available for any contingency.
US air transports are described as making almost daily landings on Socotra and Masirah. They fly in from the US naval base of Diego Garcia, one of America's biggest military facilities, just over 3,000 kilometers away. The US military presence in the region will further expand in the first week of March when three US aircraft carriers and their strike groups plus a French carrier arrive in the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea: They are theUSS Abraham Lincoln, USS Carl Vinson, USS Enterprise and the Charles de Gaulle nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.
A fourth US carrier will be standing by in the Pacific Ocean, a few days' sailing time from the water off Iran's coast.
Obama may debunk Republican charges that he is weak on Iran
By early March, therefore, America will have piled up enough military strength within reach of Iran to exercise its consistently avowed military option.
Tuesday, Jan. 24, in his State of the Union address, the president said: “Let there be no doubt: America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal. But a peaceful resolution of this issue is still possible, and far better, and if Iran changes course and meets its obligations, it can rejoin the community of nations.”
Our military sources have also picked up reports of British and French air, naval and special forces landings this month in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
All these military concentrations and Obama's latest word on the Iranian nuclear issue tend to confirm that nothing has changed since DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Washington first reported in November 2011 on the US president's resolve to attack Iran's nuclear facilities in the course of 2012.
(See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 515 of Nov. 4: Targeting Tehran: Obama Set to Attack Iran’s Nuclear Sites by the fall of 2012),
The only difference may be the possibility of the date moving up from fall to spring, depending on three developments:
1. The outcome of the secret exchanges taking place between Washington and Tehran on which we have reported exclusively;
2. An Israeli decision to go ahead with a unilateral strike against Iran's nuclear facilities.
President Obama has not been able to convince Israel to drop this option and leave military action entirely to the United States.
3. The US presidential election campaign: Obama may decide to go for an attack to cripple Iran's nuclear program and preempt its production of a bomb to gain a winning hand for trumping his Republican rivals' accusation that he is weak on Iran.
Saudi Arabia versus Iran
Saudis Deploy Military in the Eastern Oil Regions in Anticipation of Iranian Strikes
Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal told Al-Arabiya television last week that the Saudi government takes Iran's threats seriously. He pointed in particular to the words of Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, who warned that Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi's promise to boost oil production by 2.7 million barrels a day (bpd) to make up for any shortfall caused by sanctions on Iran, would "create all possible problems later."
Prince Turki said he personally did not believe the oil kingdom would engage in military action but added:
"It's a direct threat to our national interests and a direct threat to our industrial installations on the coast."
Other Saudi officials in Riyadh were less diplomatic: "Iran's threats could be interpreted by Saudi Arabia as an act of war," said a senior Saudi defense official bluntly.
This week, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources report, Saudi Arabia began deploying its military in the kingdom's oil regions in the east opposite the Persian Gulf.
Patriot PAC-2 and PAC-3 intercept missile batteries were installed around the oil fields and oil terminals; Saudi special forces stationed around the kingdom's main export terminal at Ras Tanura; and special marine and naval forces trained to defend the installations began conducting sea patrols off shore.
Saudi armored forces were furthermore stationed at the main junctions of the pipelines and pumping stations and its air force and navy put on a state of alert.
While the whole world talked about Iran's threat to close the Strait of Hormuz in response to an embargo on its oil exports, the Saudis were far more concerned with the reality of the second half of that threat: They are certain that the menace of an Iranian strike at Saudi oil targets will loom ever larger as US-European sanctions bite deeper into Iran's oil sales and Riyadh steps up its oil production to make up for the Iranian shortfall.
Tehran resorts to smuggling after its oil sales shrink
The Saudis envision a panoply of aggressive Iranian operations: Missiles striking their oil fields and export terminals - aimed from speedboats zooming up close to target and launched from small unpopulated Persian Gulf islands occupied for the purpose by especially trained Iranian units.
Iranian frogmen may come ashore to sabotage oil installations and pipelines; kamikaze pilots crash their planes into the oil tankers; and booby-trapped speedboats piloted by suicide attackers try to ram oil installations or tankers.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Gulf sources report that Riyadh challenges assessments in the West and Israel that the oil embargo has not yet touched Iran. According to Saudi figures, Tehran is already losing buyers and its regular export volume of around 2.5 million barrels a day has dropped by 15-20 percent.
To make up the difference, says Riyadh, the Iranians have in recent weeks set in motion a major enterprise for smuggling their oil out to market through certain Persian Gulf countries.
They are using large and medium sized oil tankers without flags or identifying markings to drop anchor in Gulf ports, most frequently in Abu Dhabi and Oman. Shrewd traders specializing in the sale of smuggled oil then purchase quantities of crude with cash and transport it to various buyers who don't ask questions about its provenance.
This week, Saudi officials, accompanied by oil, security and intelligence experts, visited Abu Dhabi and Oman and asked the authorities there to put a stop to Iranian oil smuggling. But Riyadh understands that its effort to dry up the Iranian oil smuggling machine may bring Tehran still closer to a decision to go on the offensive against Saudi Arabia.