WASHINGTON – The Pentagon abruptly sent a Nimitz aircraft carrier home from the Middle East and Africa due to objections from top military advisers, which is a reversal of Sunday’s muscle-building strategy aimed at deterring Iran from attacking US troops and diplomats in the Persian Gulf.
Officials said on Friday that Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher C. Miller ordered the recomposition of the ship in part as a “de-escalating” signal to Tehran to avoid encountering a crisis in the days President Trump held. U.S. intelligence reports suggest Iran and its proxies may be preparing a strike as early as this weekend to avenge the deaths of Major General Qassim Suleimani, commander of Iran’s elite Quds Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Senior Pentagon officials said Mr. Miller said sending Nimitz now, before the first anniversary of General Suleimani’s death in a U.S. drone strike in Iraq, could remove what Iranian hardliners see as a provocation that justifies their threats to U.S. military targets. Some analysts said Nimitz’s return to his home port of Bremerton, Washington, is a welcome reduction in tensions between the two countries.
“If Nimitz leaves, it could be because the Pentagon believes the threat could subside somewhat,” said Michael P. Mulroy, a former senior Pentagon official for Middle East policy.
But critics said the mixed messaging is another example of inexperience and confusing decision-making at the Pentagon since Mr Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and several of his top aides in November and replaced them with Mr Miller, a former White House aide to counterterrorism. a few of Trump’s loyalists.
“This decision at best sends a mixed signal to Iran and reduces our range of options at the exact wrong time,” said Matthew Spence, a former senior Pentagon official for the Middle East. “It raises the serious question of what the administration’s strategy is here.”
Mr. Miller’s order nullified the request of General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, to expand Nimitz’s deployment and have his formidable wing ready to attack.
In recent weeks, Mr Trump has repeatedly threatened Iran on Twitter, and in November top national security aides persuaded the president to take a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear site. It is unclear whether Mr. Trump was aware of Mr. Miller’s order to send Nimitz home.
The Pentagon and General McKenzie’s Central Command have been publishing several force broadcasts for weeks to warn Tehran of the consequences of any attack. Nimitz and other warships arrived to provide air cover for U.S. troops withdrawing from Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia. The air force sent B-52 bombers three times to fly within a 60-mile radius of the Iranian coast. And the Navy announced for the first time in nearly a decade that it had ordered a Tomahawk missile submarine to launch in the Persian Gulf.
As early as Wednesday, General McKenzie warned Iranians and their Shiite militia representatives in Iraq of any attacks around the anniversary of General Suleimani’s January 3 death.
But on Thursday, senior military advisers, including General McKenzie and General Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were surprised by Mr Miller’s decision on Nimitz.
The Navy sought to limit more extensions to the already lengthy deployment of carriers, but commanders believed the warship would remain for at least a few more days to counter what military intelligence analysts see as a growing and imminent threat.
U.S. intelligence analysts in recent days say they have discovered Iran’s air defenses, naval forces and other security units on high alert. They also found that Iran had transferred several short-range missiles and drones to Iraq. But senior Defense Department officials admit they cannot say whether Iran or its Shiite plenipotentiaries in Iraq are ready to attack U.S. troops or are preparing defensive measures in case Mr. Trump orders a preemptive attack on them.
“Here you have the classic security dilemma, where maneuvers on both sides can be misread and increase the risks of miscalculations,” said Brett H. McGurk, a former Mr. Trump special envoy in the Islamic State defeat coalition.
Some of Mr. Miller’s top aides, including Ezra Cohen-Watnick, one of the White House loyalists, newly appointed as the Pentagon’s top intelligence official, have raised doubts about the value of deterring Nimitz, especially when balanced with the moral costs of its expansion. tour. Some aides also questioned the immediacy of any attack by Iran or its proxies, which is an estimate reported earlier to CNN.
Pentagon officials said they had sent additional ground fighter and attack aircraft, as well as refueling planes, to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to make up for Nimitz’s loss of firepower.
On Friday, the commander-in-chief of the Iranian paramilitary corps of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said his country was fully prepared to respond to any U.S. military pressure amid heightened tensions between Tehran and Washington in the final days of Mr Trump’s presidency.
“Today we have no problems, worries or anxieties about encountering any kind of power,” Major General Hossein Salami said at a ceremony at Tehran University on the anniversary of General Suleiman’s death.
“We will give the last words to the enemies on the battlefield,” said General Salami, without mentioning the United States directly.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said Thursday that the Trump administration is creating an excuse for war.
“Instead of fighting Covid in the US, @realDonaldTrump and cohorts are spending billions to fly B52s and send armadas to OUR region,” Mr Zarif said. in a tweet. “Intelligence from Iraq indicates a conspiracy to INVENT an excuse for war. Iran is not looking for war, but it will openly and DIRECTLY defend its people, security and vital interests. “
In another provocation from Iran on Friday, Tehran informed international inspectors that it was preparing to start uranium production at a much higher level of enrichment at Fordow, a plant that is deep under the mountain and therefore harder to attack. The move seemed to be aimed primarily at putting pressure on President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. to rejoin the nuclear deal with Iran. Under the 2015 contract, little activity was allowed at the Fordow plant.
A statement to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, the United Nations group that oversees the production of nuclear material, says Iran will continue to produce uranium enriched to 20 percent purity. It is the highest level it has produced before the nuclear deal, which the country at the time justified as necessary to create medical isotopes for its Tehran research reactor.
To that level, enriched fuel is not enough to produce a bomb, but it is close. It takes relatively little further enrichment to achieve the 90 percent purity traditionally used for bomb fuel.
The move was not unexpected. The Iranian parliament recently passed a law requiring the government to increase both the amount of fuel it produces and the level of enrichment. But the choice to perform that production at Fordow, its latest plant, was shown. The plant was built deep below the mountain in the well-protected base of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, and a successful strike requires repeated attacks with the largest bomb that fires in a bunker in the American arsenal.
It would take months for Iran to produce any significant amount of fuel at an enrichment level of 20 percent, but a mere announcement could be another red flag for Mr. Trump to renew bombing capabilities.
David E. Sanger contributed to reporting.