WASHINGTON (AP) – The Pentagon has decided to send home the only Navy aircraft carrier operating in the Middle East, a move that would reduce U.S. firepower in the region amid heightened tensions with Iran.
The decision, announced Thursday by Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller, came a day after air force B-52 bombers flew uninterrupted from the United States to the Persian Gulf in a show of force that, according to military officials were to warn Iran against carrying out attacks on U.S. forces or interests.
The steering of the aircraft carrier, the USS Nimitz, home of the American West Coast, seems contrary to the idea that a show of force is needed to deter Iran. This could reflect a rift in the defense establishment over whether Iran poses an increased threat of strike in the dwindling days of the Trump administration.
In announcing the decision to send the Nimitz home, Miller made no mention of Iran.
Earlier this week, a U.S. military officer close to the situation told reporters that the U.S. was detecting signs that Iran was preparing for possible attacks on U.S. or related targets in Iraq or elsewhere in the Middle East. That was the reason for the dispatch of two B-52 bombers from the U.S. to fly over the Gulf on Wednesday, the officer said, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal assessments.
President Donald Trump recently called for a “talk” that Iran could strike. Days after a December 20 rocket attack on the US embassy in Baghdad by Iranian-backed Shiite militias, Trump tweeted that Iran was on notice.
Some friendly health advice to Iran: if one American is killed, I will hold Iran accountable. Think about it, ‘Trump wrote on Dec. 23. He added: “We are hearing chatter about additional attacks on Americans in Iraq. ‘
US concerns are linked to the approach of the 3rd anniversary of the US air strike that the Iranian top commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, killed. Iran initially retaliated with a ballistic missile attack on a military base in neighboring Iraq, causing dozens of concussion injuries but no deaths among U.S. troops. But US officials are worried that Iran could plan further retaliation.
Because of the potential for escalation that could lead to a wider war, the US has tried to deter Iran from further attacks. Strategic calculations on both sides are further complicated by the political transition in Washington to a Biden government that can look for new ways to deal with Iran. Elected President Joe Biden, for example, said he hoped to return the US to a 2015 agreement with world powers in which Iran agreed to curtail its nuclear activities in exchange for lifting international sanctions.
The US has maintained an almost continuous presence in the Persian Gulf since the USS Abraham Lincoln was sent in May 2019 amid concerns that Iran is considering attacking US interests in the region. The US also sent additional land attack planes and re-established a presence in Saudi Arabia.
The Nimitz deployed from the US in April and would return before the end of the year. In early December, its planned return was postponed, partly out of concern about possible Iranian threats, and more recently, it was instructed to provide support along the coast of Somalia for the movement of US forces out of the country.