A US Air Force B-52 Stratofortress flies with Royal Saudi Arabian Air Force F-15SAs during a bomber taskforce mission over the US Central Command area of responsibility yesterday. – AFP

WASHINGTON: A US B-52 bomber flew over the Middle East yesterday in a show of force by President Joe Biden’s new administration as it girds for a challenging relationship with Iran, the Pentagon said. The nuclear-capable B-52H Stratofortresss flew the round-trip mission from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, accompanied at different times by US fighter jets and refueling tankers, and, at one point, by Royal Saudi Arabian Air Force F-15 fighters.

It was the third such mission this year, the first two carried out by the previous administration of Donald Trump to maintain a threat presence against Iran. While Biden, who became president on Jan 20, has signaled a readiness to thaw relations with Tehran, the new mission showed that US strategic policy has not changed.

“This long-range, short-duration defensive mission was intended to demonstrate the US military’s ability to deploy airpower anywhere in the world to deter potential aggression and showcase the US commitment to regional security,” the US Central Command said in a statement. “Centcom is committed to partner security and preserving regional stability,” it said.

Meanwhile, a top Iranian official yesterday said arch-foe Israel was waging a “psychological war” after the Jewish state’s army said new “offensive options” were being drawn up in case they were needed against the Islamic republic. Mahmoud Vaezi, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s chief of staff, also vowed that his country was ready and willing to defend itself. “We have no intention of going to war, but we are serious about defending the country,” he said.

Israel, a close US ally, accuses Iran of seeking to build a nuclear bomb, a charge Tehran denies. The Jewish state also frequently targets Iran-backed militant groups in Lebanon, Syria and the Gaza Strip. Israel’s military chief General Aviv Kochavi said Tuesday he had ordered new plans be drawn up this year to counter Iran’s nuclear capabilities, in case political leaders decided to target the country. “The power to initiate them lies with the political echelon,” Kochavi stressed. “However, the offensive options need to be prepared, ready and on the table.”

Iran’s Vaezi shot back yesterday that “they are conducting a psychological war”. Responding to a question on the sidelines of a council of ministers meeting, he charged that Israel has “practically no plans, no capacity”. Iran’s recent military maneuvers, testing missiles and drones, Vaezi added, showed that “our armed forces are trained” to defend Iran.

Kochavi’s remarks came nearly a week after the inauguration of Biden, who has signaled he wants to return to dialogue with Iran. His predecessor Trump had unilaterally withdrawn Washington in 2018 from a nuclear deal Tehran had struck with major world powers. Biden’s team has argued Iran must first return to strict compliance with its nuclear commitments under the deal with Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States.

Tehran has demanded an “unconditional” lifting of punishing sanctions first, and called on Washington to stop seeking to “extract concessions”. Israel rejects the original nuclear deal, and Kochavi reiterated its view that “any agreement that resembles the 2015 agreement is a bad thing, both strategically and operationally”. “Pressure on Iran must continue – Iran must not have the capacity to develop a nuclear bomb.” – AFP