WASHINGTON — The Pentagon said Sunday that it had ordered the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz to remain in the Middle East because of Iranian threats against President Donald Trump and other U.S. officials, just three days after sending the warship home as a signal to de-escalate rising tensions with Tehran.
The acting secretary of the defense, Christopher C. Miller, abruptly reversed his previous order to redeploy the Nimitz, which he had done over the objections of his top military advisers. The military had for weeks been engaged in a muscle-flexing strategy aimed at deterring Iran from attacking U.S. personnel in the Persian Gulf.
“Due to the recent threats issued by Iranian leaders against President Trump and other U.S. government officials, I have ordered the USS Nimitz to halt its routine redeployment,” Miller said in a statement Sunday night.
U.S. intelligence agencies have assessed for months that Iran is seeking to target senior U.S. military officers and civilian leaders to avenge the death of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard, in a U.S. drone strike one year ago.
But it was unclear what new urgency about these threats, if any, prompted Miller to cancel his earlier order to send the Nimitz home. In the past few days, Iranian officials have increased their fiery messaging against the United States. The head of Iran’s judiciary, Ebrahim Raisi, said all of those who had a role in Soleimani’s killing would not be able to “escape law and justice,” even if they were an American president.
It was unclear last week whether Trump was aware of Miller’s order to send the Nimitz to its home port in Bremerton, Washington, after a longer-than-usual 10-month deployment.
Some Trump administration officials suggested Sunday that with a contentious political week coming up — Tuesday’s Senate runoff election in Georgia and Wednesday’s meeting of the House and Senate to certify President-elect Joe Biden’s victory — the optics of the aircraft carrier steaming away from the Middle East did not suit the White House.
Whatever the reason, the mixed messaging surrounding the carrier’s movements raised new questions about the coordination and communications between an inexperienced Pentagon leadership and the White House in the waning days of the Trump administration.
Some current and former Pentagon officials have criticized the decision-making at the Pentagon since Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and several of his top aides in November, and replaced them with Miller, a former White House counterterrorism aide, and several Trump loyalists.
Officials said Friday that Miller ordered the redeployment of the Nimitz in part as a “de-escalatory” signal to Tehran to avoid stumbling into a crisis at the end of Trump’s administration that would land in Biden’s lap as he took office.
In recent weeks, Trump has repeatedly threatened Iran on Twitter, and in November, top national security aides talked the president out of a preemptive strike against an Iranian nuclear site.
The Pentagon’s Central Command had for weeks publicized several shows of force to warn Tehran of the consequences of any assault against U.S. troops or diplomats.
The Nimitz and other warships arrived to provide air cover for U.S. troops withdrawing from Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia. The Air Force three times dispatched B-52 bombers to fly within 60 miles of the Iranian coast. And the Navy announced for the first time in nearly a decade that it had ordered a submarine, carrying cruise missiles, into the Persian Gulf.
U.S. intelligence reports indicated that Iran and its proxies might have been preparing a strike as early as this past weekend to avenge the deaths of Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the head of Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed militia in Iraq, who was killed in the same U.S. drone strike in Baghdad last January.
U.S. intelligence analysts in recent days say they have detected Iranian air defenses, maritime forces and other security units on high alert. They have also determined that Iran has moved more short-range missiles and drones into Iraq.
But senior Defense Department officials acknowledge they cannot tell if Iran or its Shiite proxies in Iraq are readying to strike U.S. troops or are preparing defensive measures in case Trump orders a preemptive attack against them.