As tensions between Tehran, Washington and Tel Aviv continue to mount over Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons technologies, the U.S. has quietly begun a deployment of its premier stealthy fighter, the twin-engine F-22, to the United Arab Emirates.

Multiple Lockheed Martin aircraft will operate out of Al Dhafra Air Base there, industry sources say. This is the same base from which U.S. U-2s and Global Hawk UAVs have been launched since shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“The United States Air Force has deployed F-22s to Southwest Asia,” according to a statement from service spokesman Capt. Phil Ventura. “Such deployments strengthen military-to-military relationships, promote sovereign and regional security, improve combined tactical air operations and enhance interoperability of forces, equipment and procedures.” Ventura declined to specify what the aircraft’s mission is for this deployment.

Because of the F-22’s supercruise — or high, efficient rate of speed — stealth, thrust-vectoring and inherent intelligence-collection capabilities, it is considered the most sophisticated fighter in the world. Deploying it to any region causes residents there to take note, says one industry executive. The timing of the Persian Gulf deployment could be a signal from the U.S. to Iran to take seriously objections to the latter’s nuclear weapons ambitions.

“The F-22 is unlike any other fighter in the world and our friends and potential adversaries know it,” the executive says. “When we deployed the F-22s to Guam and Japan, everybody in Asia and the Pacific paid attention.”

The F-22 Raptor has conducted numerous deployments to the Pacific region, and in December 2009 traveled to southwest Asia for its first deployment there to shadow an international warfighting exercise, though it did not directly participate. One former F-22 program official notes that more deployments to desert regions are needed to keep maintainers current on sustaining the jets in such harsh conditions.

Though the F-22 has been deployed before, it has yet to see combat since it was declared operational in 2005; the high cost of the fighter is likely a reason for the Pentagon’s unwillingness to expose it to combat in a campaign such as Libya unless its high-end qualities are absolutely necessary for a mission. But the fighter has also been plagued by problems with its onboard oxygen-generation system.

Next week, Lockheed will host a ceremony to commemorate the final F-22 (No. 4195) exiting the Marietta, Ga., production line, closing a major chapter for Air Force procurement history and for Lockheed.