By LUIS MARTINEZ, ABC News
(WASHINGTON) — President Donald Trump directed acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller to return the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz and its carrier strike group to the Middle East, reversing Miller’s decision last week to bring the carrier home, according to a U.S. government official.
On Sunday night, Miller issued a statement citing Iranian threats against Trump as the reason why the carrier was being returned to the region — an announcement that had taken military officials by surprise.
“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 the Sunday statement. “The USS Nimitz will now remain on station in the U.S. Central Command area of operations. No one should doubt the resolve of the United States of America.”
Miller’s initial decision to bring the carrier home was made before top Iranian leaders made the thinly veiled threats against Trump, said the U.S. government official. The public announcement that the Nimitz was being ordered home ultimately came about the same time as the Iranian leaders made their comments.
The National Security Council declined to comment on reports that Trump had directed the carrier’s return. CNN was first to report that Trump was behind the decision to send the carrier back to the region.
Pentagon officials were surprised by the move because of its sudden nature following last Thursday’s announcement that the ship was returning after a nine-month deployment. U.S. Navy officials were also planning for the ship’s return from its lengthy deployment to ready it for its next deployment, said a defense official.
Miller made that decision despite a request from U.S. Central Command’s Gen. Frank McKenzie to keep the carrier in the region, according to a U.S. official. The move was interpreted as sending a message to Iran that the U.S. was de-escalating tensions ahead of the one-year anniversary of the U.S. airstrike that killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani.
In an interview with ABC News two weeks ago, McKenzie said the U.S. remained “in a period of heightened risk” with Iran as the anniversary of Soleimani’s death approached.
U.S. intelligence has assessed that the greatest risk from Iran to U.S. personnel and interests in the region is in Iraq where U.S. facilities have taken rocket fire in recent years from Iranian-backed militias.
Two weeks ago the U.S. blamed Iranian-backed militia groups for the firing of 21 rockets at the U.S. embassy compound, the largest such attack since 2010.
In a strongly worded statement Centcom said the U.S. “will hold Iran accountable for the deaths of any Americans that result from the work of these Iranian-backed Rogue Militia Groups.”
Ahead of this week’s anniversary Centcom demonstrated to Iran its deterrence capabilities by flying long range B-52 strategic bombers to carry out three overflights of the Persian Gulf.
But it was unclear if comments made by Iranian leaders directed at Trump pointed to increased security risks in the region.
In a speech on Thursday Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had said that Trump “will soon be deposed not just from office but from life.”
“Do not presume that someone, as the president of America, who appeared as a murderer or ordered a murder, may be immune from justice being carried out. Never,” said Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s top judicial official.
On Monday, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps seized a South Korean-flagged freighter in the Persian Gulf for “environmental pollution”. A spokesperson for the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, that oversees U.S. Naval operations in the Middle East, said that it was monitoring the situation.
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