Carla Babb at the Pentagon and Anjana Pasricha in New Delhi contributed to this report.
WHITE HOUSE — The United States is speeding up the arrival of a naval aircraft carrier strike group to the Arabian Sea after concerns Iran may be planning an attack against American or allied targets.
The USS Abraham Lincoln "aircraft carrier is currently operating in the U.S. European Command area of responsibility (AOR), but will expedite its arrival into the U.S. Central Command AOR in order to defend American forces and interests in the region," a defense official told VOA.
"We have continued to see activity that leads us to believe that there's escalation that may be taking place, and so we're taking all the appropriate actions, both from a security perspective as well as our ability to make sure the president has a wide range of options in the event that something should actually take place," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters Monday in Finland.
An Israeli journalist, Barak Ravid, reports the Mossad intelligence agency alerted the United States that Iranian elements may be preparing to strike American or allied targets in the Gulf region.
"It is still unclear to us what the Iranians are trying to do and how they are planning to do it," Ravid quotes an Israeli intelligence officer as saying. "But it is clear to us that the Iranian temperature is on the rise as a result of the growing U.S. pressure campaign against them and they are considering retaliating against U.S. interests in the Gulf."
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, on Twitter, stated that the deployment of a naval carrier strike group and an air force bomber task force to the area "represents a prudent repositioning of assets in response to indications of a credible threat by Iranian regime forces."
Shanahan added: "We call on the Iranian regime to cease all provocation. We will hold the Iranian regime accountable for any attack on US forces or our interests."
2 of 2: We call on the Iranian regime to cease all provocation. We will hold the Iranian regime accountable for any attack on US forces or our interests.— Acting SecDef Pat Shanahan (@ActingSecDef) May 6, 2019
The comments follow an unusual and aggressive Sunday evening statement issued in the name of the U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton.
A "number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings" linked to Iran prompted the United States to deploy an aircraft carrier strike group and bomber task force to the Middle East, Bolton said in the statement.
The dispatch of the carrier strike group and the bomber task force is intended to "send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force," added Bolton.
In addition to the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier, the strike group included fighter jets, helicopters, destroyers and more than 6,000 sailors when it left its U.S. port in the state of Virginia in early April.
The Nimitz-class carrier was in the Adriatic Sea as of May 1 when Albania's president, Ilir Meta, visited the 333-meter-long vessel.
Bolton's statement said the United States "is not seeking war with the Iranian regime, but we are fully prepared to respond to any attack, whether by proxy, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or regular Iranian forces."
New America Foundation Fellow Ned Price says recent actions to sanction the IRGC and end sanctions waivers for some of the country's biggest oil buyers make it seem like the Trump administration "seems intent on driving the Iranians into a corner."
"The concern with Bolton's threat — coming in the midst of a series of escalations from the Trump administration — underscores the concern that the administration is trying to goad the Iranians into an unwise and ill-considered reaction," Price, a former spokesman for the Obama-era National Security Council, told VOA.
The Trump administration has been working to apply what it calls a "maximum pressure campaign" against Iran to try to get the country to change its behavior, including its sponsorship of terror groups and what the White House alleges is a ballistic missile program that threatens the United States.
In response to last month's U.S. designation of the IRGC as a terrorist group, Iran responded by declaring the United States a state sponsor of terrorism and its forces in the Middle East as terror groups.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities, a research group that advocates that America maintain a strong, dynamic military but wants it to try to avoid being deployed in overseas wars. DePetris says that while Iran is meddlesome, the threats it poses can best be addressed with deterrence and diplomacy.
"Maximum pressure will fail to change the regime's behavior, but it will ratchet up tensions between the U.S. and Iran, possibly inciting a crisis or war, something Trump promised to avoid during his campaign," DePetris told VOA. "This is more evidence of a troublesome disconnect between the president and the people who ostensibly work under him. The Iranians are meddlesome actors, but they're far from a threat to the U.S., the world's only superpower."
The vice president of the Heritage Foundation's Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy praises the U.S. move.
"The U.S. is a global power with global interests and responsibilities," James Jay Carafano told VOA. "It's a powerful statement to demonstrate the U.S. is not distracted by a host of challenges in Venezuela, by provocations from North Korea, and yet, the U.S. has the resolve and capacity to show it can stand strong in the Middle East, as well."
Bolton's statement is raising concern in other countries.
India, whose economy is largely fueled by imported crude — much of it from Middle East countries such as Iraq and Saudi Arabia — is worried about the security of sea lanes through which its energy supplies flow.
"If you have a situation where Iran and America are actually entering into a confrontationist mode, then that will not only impact the two countries but the larger region," said security analyst Harsh Pant at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.
"The question of what happens to the larger region, what happens to the sea lanes of communication, I think that is going to be a challenge if this results in something bigger. ... India will wait and watch and see how far it goes."
India, which has friendly relations with Iran and a growing strategic partnership with the United States, is also under pressure to slash oil imports from Iran.
Except for saying that there will be additional supplies from other oil-producing countries, New Delhi has not stated clearly whether it plans to bring down its imports from Iran to zero as the United States wants.
There has been no immediate reaction from Iran to Bolton's statement.
One week ago, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif accused Bolton and others, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, of "designing confrontation," but added that he did not "think military confrontation will happen."
Speaking to CBS News, Zarif accused the U.S. administration of "putting things in place for accidents to happen. And there has to be extreme vigilance, so that people who are planning this type of accident would not have their way."