Spanish Navy Leaves U.S. Strike Group as Tensions with Iran Rise

The Mendez Nunez as seen from USS Lincoln's flight deck, April 24 (USN)

Published May 14, 2019 7:40 PM by The Maritime Executive

The government of Spain has withdrawn the frigate Méndez Núñez from the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group, which has been retasked to counter an allegedly increased threat from Iran.

The Méndez Núñez was assigned to the Lincoln CSG as part of a peaceful commemorative voyage: Núñez is circling the earth to recognize the 500th anniversary of the first circumnavigation, which was underwritten by Spain and conducted by Ferdinand Magellan and Juan Sebastián Elcano from 1519-1522. The Spanish government said that since the Lincoln CSG has been diverted from its planned mission, the Méndez Núñez will wait for the strike group to finish its new tasking before rejoining for the voyage east. 

“I am legally-minded and when I see that there is a deviation from the agreement, I feel that it is better to temporarily suspend it,” said Spain’s acting defense minister, Margarita Robles. “We respect the [U.S.] decision and when things go back to what was planned with the Spanish Navy, we will resume [the joint exercise]."

The Núñez was the only non-U.S. vessel accompanying USS Lincoln, and the strike group's leaders had commended her performance earlier in the mission. “From my perspective, Méndez Núñez is a group of superstars,” said Capt. Sean R. Anderson, commodore of the U.S. Navy's Destroyer Squadron 2, after a series of exercises in April. “With every mission we’ve conducted, they have demonstrated incredible competence and professionalism. They are representing their navy and our strike group really well.”

Troop movement plans

Spain's withdrawal from the Lincoln CSG followed after reports that the U.S. Defense Department has prepared contingency plans for deploying American troops to the Persian Gulf region. The plans are intended to be used if Tehran resumes its nuclear weapons program or if it attacks American forces, officials told the New York Times.

Administration officials said that contingency plans for deployment of up to 120,000 troops are not intended to support an invasion of Iran. 

The contingency plans were reportedly requested by the Trump administration's National Security Advisor, John Bolton, who has long advocated overthrowing the Iranian government. Bolton is a prominent supporter of the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (MeK), an Islamist group that advocates for regime change as an "ultimate solution" for Iran. MeK was included in the U.S. State Department's Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) list until 2012.