The US Defence Department is to send its only Navy aircraft carrier operating in the Middle East home to the US West Coast, in a decision announced on 31 December by the acting secretary of defence, Christopher Miller.
The Bremerton-based aircraft carrier USS Nimitz, deployed in April from Puget Sound, was on schedule to return before the end of the year. However, in early December, return was postponed, purportedly in part over concerns about potential Iranian threats.
More recently the 1,092-foot-long USS Nimitz and its carrier strike group had been providing operational and close-air support off the coast of Somalia as part of Joint Task Force-Quartz and Operation Octave Quartz as US troops are relocated from Somalia to other areas of Africa.
“The secretary appreciates the hard work, commitment, and flexibility of more than 5,000 sailors and Marines of the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group who repeatedly demonstrated operational excellence in providing air support to combat operations against terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan and ensuring maritime security in critical waterways,” said Jonathan Rath Hoffman, Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, in a press release.
Christopher Miller made the call to bring home the aircraft carrier just a day after Air Force B-52 bombers flew from the United States to the Persian Gulf in a show of military might.
The Air Force long-range bombers carried out a 30-hour round-trip mission to the Middle East took off from the air base in Minot, North Dakota, on Tuesday and were refuelled in flight. The second mission over the Persian Gulf in December came as Washington has been increasingly concerned about possible Iranian retaliation targeting US or allied facilities.
Announcing the decision to send the USS Nimitz home, Miller made no mention of Iran.
Persian Gulf Tensions
Washington has sought to maintain an almost continuous aircraft carrier presence in the Persian Gulf region. The USS Abraham Lincoln was deployed in May 2019 amid concerns that Iran was mulling attacking US interests in the region.
Recent US concerns have been linked with the approaching one-year anniversary of the American drone airstrike that killed Iran’s top commander, General Qasem Soleimani on 3 January.
Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a top Baghdad-allied Shia militia commander, were killed after their convoy was struck by a US drone outside Baghdad International Airport.
Iran retaliated by launching over a dozen ballistic missiles at two US bases in Iraq on 8 January, causing dozens of brain concussion injuries but no deaths among American troops.
Iranian officials have repeatedly threatened further attacks, with an advisor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei referring to the missile attack as an “initial slap” of revenge.
US-Iran tensions flared further after Washington blamed Tehran for a rocket attack on the US Embassy compound in Baghdad on 20 December. A local civilian died in the strike, while no embassy personnel were killed or injured according to NPR, citing US diplomatic sources. The attack on the international zone in Baghdad was slammed by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as masterminded by "Iranian-backed militias".
Iran has rejected the allegations.
President Donald Trump on 23 December tweeted some "friendly health advice to Iran", warning that in the event of any American deaths, he would hold Tehran responsible. He also posting a picture of three unexploded rockets allegedly found near the attack site.
Our embassy in Baghdad got hit Sunday by several rockets. Three rockets failed to launch. Guess where they were from: IRAN. Now we hear chatter of additional attacks against Americans in Iraq... pic.twitter.com/0OCL6IFp5M— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 23, 2020
The developments come amidst the political transition in Washington, as sitting president Donald Trump is preparing to hand over the reigns of power to President-elect Joe Biden.
The Democrat and his team have been suggested as considering new paths to dealing with Iran. Thus, Biden has voiced hopes of returning the US to a 2015 The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or the Iran Nuclear Deal with world powers, in which Tehran agreed to limit its nuclear activities in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions.