WASHINGTON – The Pentagon abruptly sent the aircraft carrier Nimitz home from the Middle East and Africa to raise objections to senior military advisers. This marks the reversal of a week-long muscle building strategy designed to deter Iran from attacking American troops and diplomats in the Persian Gulf.
Officials said on Friday that incumbent Defense Secretary Christopher C. Miller had ordered the ship to be redeployed in part as a “de-escalation” signal to Tehran to avoid President Trump falling into crisis in the dwindling days of his term in office. American intelligence reports suggest that Iran and its deputies may be preparing a strike this weekend to avenge the death of Major General Qassim Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite Quds force in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Senior Pentagon officials said Mr Miller believed that sending the Nimitz now, ahead of the first anniversary of the death of General Suleimani in an American drone strike in Iraq, could eradicate what Iranian hardliners see as provocation to their threats against Americans justifies military targets. Some analysts said the Nimitz’s return to her home port of Bremerton, Washington, would be a welcome relief in tension between the two countries.
“If the Nimitz leaves, it could be because the Pentagon believes the threat may lessen somewhat,” said Michael P. Mulroy, the Pentagon’s former chief politician in the Middle East.
However, critics said the mixed news was another example of the inexperience and confusing decision-making at the Pentagon since Trump fired Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper and several of his top aides in November and replaced them with Mr. Miller, a former counter-terrorism adviser at the White House and several Trump loyalists.
“This decision sends a mixed signal to Iran at best and reduces our choices at just the wrong time,” said Matthew Spence, a former senior Pentagon leader in the Middle East. “It seriously questions what strategy the administration is pursuing here.”
Mr. Miller’s order canceled a request from General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., commander of the American Forces in the Middle East, to extend the Nimitz’s service and keep her formidable wing of attack aircraft ready.
In the past few weeks, Mr Trump has repeatedly threatened Iran on Twitter, and in November senior national security aides advised the president against launching a pre-emptive strike against an Iranian nuclear facility. It is unclear whether Mr Trump was aware of Mr Miller’s order to send the Nimitz home.
The Pentagon and General McKenzie’s Central Command had published several violent demonstrations over weeks to warn Tehran of the consequences of an attack. The Nimitz and other warships arrived to protect American forces withdrawing from Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia. The Air Force dispatched B-52 bombers three times 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 Tomahawk missile submarine into the Persian Gulf.
On Wednesday, General McKenzie warned the Iranians and their Shiite militia representatives in Iraq against attacks around the anniversary of General Suleimani’s death on January 3.
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 the Nimitz.
The Navy had attempted to expand the aircraft carrier’s already protracted use, but commanders believed the warship would remain for a few more days to counter what military intelligence analysts saw as a growing and imminent threat.
American intelligence analysts have discovered Iranian air defenses, naval forces and other security forces on greater alert in the past few days. They also noted that Iran brought more short-range missiles and drones into Iraq. But senior Defense Department officials admit they cannot say whether Iran or its Shiite proxies in Iraq are ready to beat American troops or prepare defensive measures if Mr Trump orders a pre-emptive attack against them.
“What you have here is a classic security dilemma where maneuvers on either side can be misunderstood and increase the risk of miscalculation,” said Brett H. McGurk, Trump’s former special envoy for the coalition on the defeat of Islamic State.
Some of Mr. Miller’s top advisors, including Ezra Cohen-Watnick, one of the White House loyalists newly appointed as Pentagon’s chief intelligence officer, expressed doubts about the Nimitz’s deterrent value, especially when weighed against the moral cost of its expanding tour . Some aides also questioned the impending attack by Iran or its proxies, an assessment CNN had previously reported.
Pentagon officials said they had sent additional land-based warplanes and attack jets, as well as refueling planes, to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to compensate for the Nimitz’s loss of firepower.
On Friday, the commander in chief of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Paramilitary Corps said his country was fully prepared to respond to US military pressure amid mounting tensions between Tehran and Washington in the waning days of Trump’s presidency.
“Today we have no problem, worry or concern about meeting any powers,” Major General Hossein Salami said at a ceremony at Tehran University to commemorate the anniversary of General Suleimani’s death.
“We will give our last words to our enemies on the battlefield,” said General Salami, without directly mentioning the United States.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said Thursday that the Trump administration was creating an excuse for the war.
“Instead of fighting Covid in the US, @realDonaldTrump & Cohorts are wasting billions flying B52 and sending Armadas to our region,” Zarif said in a tweet. “Iraqi intelligence agencies suggest a conspiracy to create the pretext for war. Iran does not seek war, but will openly and directly defend its people, their security and their vital interests. “
In a further provocation from Iran on Friday, Tehran informed international inspectors that the production of uranium with a significantly higher enrichment was to begin in Fordow, a plant that lies deep under a mountain and is therefore more difficult to attack. The move appeared primarily to be aimed at putting pressure on President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. to re-join the nuclear deal with Iran. Little activity was allowed at the Fordow plant under the 2015 contract.
The message to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, the United Nations group that oversees the production of nuclear material, said Iran will resume production of uranium enriched with 20 percent purity. This is the highest level it produced before the nuclear deal, which the country justified at the time as necessary for the production of medical isotopes for its Tehran research reactor.
Fuel enriched to this level is not enough to make a bomb, but it is close. It requires relatively little further enrichment to reach the 90 percent purity traditionally used for bomb fuel.
The move wasn’t 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 decision to carry out this production in Fordow, the newest plant, was significant. The facility is located deep under a mountain in a well-protected base of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards. A successful attack would require repeated attacks using the largest bunker bomb in the American arsenal.
It would be months for Iran to produce a significant amount of 20 percent enrichment fuel, but the mere announcement could be another red flag for Mr Trump to rekindle the bombing options.
David E. Sanger contributed to the coverage.