President Donald Trump was behind the abrupt decision announced on Sunday night to reverse course and keep the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz in the Middle East due to Iranian threats against top U.S. officials, according to two people familiar with conversations.
The move was the latest in a string of reversals that befuddled observers and sent mixed signals to Iran.
The Pentagon, alarmed by increased Iranian activity ahead of the one-year anniversary of the death of Iranian leader Qasem Soleimani, has in recent weeks taken action to shore up its forces in the Middle East and signal that the U.S. will respond to any attack. So Iran watchers were surprised on Thursday when acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller ordered the Nimitz, which had been on station in the Middle East, to return home.
Miller made the move over the objections of top commanders, a development first reported by The New York Times and confirmed by a defense official.
Officials said Miller made the decision to send the carrier home as a “de-escalation” tactic as tensions with Tehran continued to simmer. But the ship was also scheduled to return around that time for routine maintenance anyway, and the Navy had pushed for the departure, officials said.
After public threats from Iranian leaders over the weekend, Trump abruptly ordered Miller to turn the carrier around and keep it in the Middle East, according to two U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
The White House and the Pentagon declined to comment.
Miller said in the new statement on Sunday that the reversal was due to "recent threats issued by Iranian leaders against President Trump and other US government officials." But one senior defense official said there had been no change in the threat level leading up to the decision.
"The USS Nimitz will now remain on station in the US Central Command area of operations,” Miller said. “No one should doubt the resolve of the United States of America.”
The reversal came after the head of Iran’s judiciary, Ebrahim Raisi, seemed to implicitly threaten Trump on Friday, saying that all those who had a role in Soleimani’s killing would not be able to “escape law and justice” — even if they were a U.S. president.
And on Saturday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif cited “new intelligence” from Iraq indicating that “Israeli agent-provocateurs” are plotting attacks against Americans, which some took as a preemptive effort to deflect blame for any attack.
“Be careful of a trap, @realDonaldTrump,” Zarif tweeted. “Any fireworks will backfire badly, particularly against your same BFFs."
Even after the anniversary passed on Sunday, the Pentagon is still on high alert for an attack from Iran on U.S. forces in the Middle East, according to one of the officials.
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