Two US B-52H Stratofortress bombers, powerful fighters that are not deployed frequently, flew over the Middle East on Thursday. The move was widely considered a veiled threat to Iran, in the wake of fears that there would be retaliations from Tehran in the region as the US commenced on the process to pull troops out of it.
The US had announced last month that they will reduce troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan by mid-January, asserting that the decision fulfills Trump’s pledge to bring forces home from America’s long wars. Under the accelerated pullout, the US will cut the number of troops in Afghanistan from more than 4,500 to 2,500, and in Iraq from about 3,000 to 2,500. In addition to that, the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier strike group is departing from the Gulf, fuelling worries as the move comes in the immediate aftermath of assassination of top Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.
The potential Iranian threat had become an increasing concern in recent weeks following the assassination of Fakhrizadeh. Iran had blamed the death on Israel, which has been suspected in previous killings of Iranian nuclear scientists. US officials are also worried about a possible Iranian retaliatory strike on the first anniversary of the US airstrike that killed Iran’s top general Qassem Soleimani and senior Iraqi militia leaders near Baghdad’s airport in early January.
The flight of the two massive B-52H Stratofortress bombers over the region, the second such mission in less than a month, was designed to underscore America’s continuing commitment to the Middle East. The long-range heavy bombers, which are capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear weapons, are a formidable sight and are flown less frequently in the Middle East than smaller combat aircraft, such as American fighter jets. Adversaries often complain about bomber flights in their region, deeming them a provocative show of force.
“The ability to fly strategic bombers halfway across the world in a non-stop mission and to rapidly integrate them with multiple regional partners demonstrates our close working relationships and our shared commitment to regional security and stability,” Frank McKenzie, a top US commander for the Middle East, said in a statement, reported news agency AP.
Recently, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani had said that US sanctions were making it difficult for Iran to purchase medicine and health supplies from abroad, including COVID-19 vaccines needed to contain the worst outbreak in the Middle East. President Donald Trump’s administration has imposed crippling sanctions on Iran’s banking sector and its vital oil and gas industry since unilaterally withdrawing the US from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers in 2018.
While the United States insists that medicines and humanitarian goods are exempt from sanctions, restrictions on trade have made many banks and companies across the world hesitant to do business with Iran, fearing punitive measures from the West. The country is also cut off from the international banking system, making it difficult to transfer payments. “Our people should know that for any action we plan to carry out for importing medicine, vaccines and equipment, we should curse Trump a hundred times,” Rouhani was quoted as saying by the official IRNA news agency. He said even simple transactions to purchase medicine from other countries had become extremely difficult and that it can take weeks to transfer funds.
-Inputs from agencies