US to move aircraft carrier out of Mideast amid Iran tension

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FILE - In this Nov. 27, 2020, file photo released by the U.S. Navy, Aviation Boatswain's Mate 3rd Class Marnell Maglasang, from La Puente, Calif., directs an F/A-18E Super Hornet on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz in the Arabian Sea. The Pentagon announced Thursday, Dec. 31, 2020, that the USS Nimitz, the only Navy aircraft carrier operating in the Middle East, will return home to the U.S. West Coast. (Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Cheyenne Geletka/U.S. Navy via AP)

WASHINGTON – The Pentagon has decided to send home the only Navy aircraft carrier operating in the Middle East, a move that will reduce American firepower in the region amid heightened tensions with Iran.

The decision, announced Thursday by the acting secretary of defense, Christopher Miller, came one day after Air Force B-52 bombers flew nonstop from the United States to the Persian Gulf in a show of force that military officials said was intended to caution Iran against carrying out attacks against U.S. forces or interests.

Sending the aircraft carrier, the USS Nimitz, home to the U.S. West Coast would seem at odds with the idea that a show of force is needed to deter Iran. This might reflect a split within the defense establishment on whether Iran poses a heightened threat to strike in the waning days of the Trump administration.

In announcing the decision to send the Nimitz home, Miller made no mention of Iran.

Earlier this week, an American military officer close to the situation told reporters that the U.S. had detected signs that Iran had made preparations for possible attacks on U.S. or allied targets in Iraq or elsewhere in the Mideast. This was the reason for dispatching two B-52 bombers from the U.S. to briefly overfly the Gulf on Wednesday, said the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal assessments.

President Donald Trump recently cited “chatter” that Iran might strike. Days after a Dec. 20 rocket attack on the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad by Iranian-supported Shiite militia groups, Trump tweeted that Iran was on notice.

“Some friendly health advice to Iran: If one American is killed, I will hold Iran responsible. Think it over,” Trump wrote on Dec. 23. He added, ”We hear chatter of additional attacks against Americans in Iraq.”

U.S. concerns have been tied to the approach of the Jan. 3 anniversary of the American airstrike that killed Iran's top commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Iran initially retaliated with a ballistic missile strike on a military base in neighboring Iraq that caused dozens of brain concussion injuries but no deaths among U.S. troops. But U.S. officials are concerned that Iran might be planning further retaliation.