The United States reportedly removed its only aircraft carrier from the Middle East region to ‘de-escalate’ tensions with Iran, as one of the country’s top officials said that President Trump and other US leaders were ‘not safe on this Earth.’
US intelligence officials have reportedly been alarmed at growing indications that an Iranian forces are on high alert and a possible attack on American forces is ‘imminent’ in the run-up to Sunday’s one-year anniversary of the killing of General Qassem Soleimani.
Iran denies plotting an attack, with the country’s foreign minister going so far as to accuse arch-enemy Israel of planning to using ‘agent-provocateurs’ to kill US service members in order to provoke Trump into responding against Tehran.
Acting defense secretary, Christopher C. Miller, ordered the redeployment of USS Nimitz away from the region in a ‘de-escalatory’ signal to Tehran, US officials told the New York Times.
Officials are keen to avoid sparking a crisis in the region less than three weeks before the end of Trump’s presidency.
But the head of Iran’s judiciary, Ebrahim Raisi, appeared to threaten Trump himself, saying all those who had a role in the killing of Quds Force commander Soleimani last year will not be able to ‘escape law and justice,’ even if they were an American president.
‘They will witness severe revenge,’ Raisi told the gathering at Tehran University, referring to Trump and US military leaders.
President Trump (left) and other senior American officials who had a hand in the January 2020 assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani ‘will witness severe revenge,’ the head of Iran’s judiciary, Ebrahim Raisi (right), warned on Friday
The Pentagon earlier this week decided to return home the USS Nimitz, the Naval aircraft carrier that has been operating just off the coast of Somalia during a 10-month deployment. The Nimitz is seen above in the Strait of Hormuz on September 18, 2020
The move to send the USS Nimitz home was seen as an effort by the Trump administration to ‘de-escalate’ tensions with Iran as the nation mourns the one-year anniversary of the January 3, 2020 assassination of Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani (pictured above in Tehran on September 18, 2016)
‘What has come so far has only been glimpses.’
‘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,’ Raisi said.
‘Those who had a role in this assassination and crime will not be safe on Earth.’
The Pentagon on Thursday ordered the USS Nimitz to return to its homeport in Washington State – a move at odds with a recent warning from the president.
The Nimitz was operating just off the coast of Somalia and was in the midst of a 10-month deployment when the Defense Department announced that it would be returning to homeport.
The move comes just two days after the US flew strategic bombers over Iran as a show of force and a week after Trump warned its government that it would be held responsible for attacks targeting Americans in Iraq.
The top US military commander in the Middle East, General Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr. (left), wanted to keep the USS Nimitz deployed in the region to deter Iran, but was reportedly overruled by Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller (right)
‘Our embassy in Baghdad got hit Sunday by several rockets. Three rockets failed to launch’ Trump tweeted from aboard Air Force One on December 23.
‘Guess where they were from: IRAN. Now we hear chatter of additional attacks against Americans in Iraq… Some friendly health advice to Iran: If one American is killed, I will hold Iran responsible. Think it over,’ he wrote.
The decision to send the Nimitz home, announced Thursday by acting secretary of defense 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 US forces or interests.
Sending the Nimitz, home to the US 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.
Miller, who was installed as acting Pentagon chief after Trump fired Mark Esper just days after the November 3 election, reportedly overruled his top military commander in the Middle East, General Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr.
The general wanted to extend the deployment of the Nimitz and keep it in the region as a deterrent, according to The New York Times.
But Miller and his top aides, including Ezra Cohen-Watnick, who was recently given a senior intelligence policy position within the Pentagon after Trump’s post-election purge of the agency, believed that the deterrence value of keeping the Nimitz deployed in the region was limited.
American military analysts in recent days are said to have noticed that Iranian air defenses, maritime forces, and other security units were on higher alert, though it is uncertain if they were readying to strike US troops or were preparing against a possible pre-emptive American attack against them.
The decision to send the Nimitz home was made just days after the American military flew B-52 nuclear-capable bombers over the Persian Gulf region in a show of force. The image above shows a US Air Force B-52H ‘Stratofortress’ from Minot Air Force Base, ND, being refueled by a KC-135 ‘Stratotanker’ on Wednesday near the Persian Gulf. The show of force was meant to deter Iran from attacking American or allied targets in the Middle East
US Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon escort is aerial refueled during Wednesday’s mission. The United States flew strategic bombers over the Persian Gulf for the second time this month
An Iranian woman holds a picture depicting General Qassem Soleimani during a ceremony marking the first anniversary of his assassination by the United States last year in Iraq. US military planners are on alert for possible Iranian retaliation as the anniversary approaches
The Pentagon is reportedly divided as to whether there are credible reports that Iran or pro-Iranian militias in Iraq are intending to launch an attack on American interests in the region this weekend.
One defense official told CNN that the ‘current threat level from Iran is the most concerning they have seen since Soleimani’s death.’
The official cited intelligence that Iran and its allied militias in Iraq could be plotting attacks against US forces in the Middle East.
Iran is said to be moving short range ballistic missiles into Iraq, according to CNN.
But others in the Pentagon disagree, saying that the threat is being exaggerated and that there is ‘not a single piece of corroborating intel’ that would suggest an attack is imminent.
When asked about the view that the threats are being exaggerated, a senior military official is quoted by CNN as saying: ‘The intelligence isn’t perfect as you know, it never is, but we do see several planning efforts underway and if even some of them are true and they execute they could kill several Americans.’
While American defense officials remained divided, there was more saber-rattling coming out of Tehran on Friday.
General Hossein Salami, the top commander of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, said on Friday that his country was fully prepared to respond to any US military pressure.
The move to bring home the USS Nimitz comes just two days after the US flew strategic bombers over Iran as a show of force and a week after President Trump warned its government that it would be held responsible for attacks targeting Americans in Iraq
Some friendly health advice to Iran: If one American is killed, I will hold Iran responsible. Think it over,’ he wrote
Salami spoke at a ceremony at Tehran University commemorating the upcoming one-year anniversary of Soleimani’s assassination.
At the time, Iran retaliated by launching a ballistic missile strike on a military base in Iraq that caused brain concussion injuries to about 100 U.S. troops. Washington and Tehran came dangerously close to war as the crisis escalated.
‘Today, we have no problem, concern or apprehension toward encountering any powers. We will give our final words to our enemies on the battlefield,’ Salami said, without mentioning the U.S. directly. Several top Iranian officials, along with Syrian, Palestinian and Lebanese allies and members of Soleimani´s family, were in attendance.
Soleimani’s replacement, Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani, said at the ceremony that Iran was not afraid of confronting ‘powers,’ again without naming the US.
He also warned that ‘freedom seekers’ within the US could retaliate for the attack that killed Soleimani, telling America that ‘inside your own home, there might be those who want to respond to the crime that you committed.’
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Saturday accused Israel of trying to provoke a war by planning attacks on US forces in Iraq.
‘New intelligence from Iraq indicate that Israeli agent-provocateurs are plotting attacks against Americans – putting an outgoing (President Donald) Trump in a bind with a fake casus belli (act justifying war),’ Zarif said in a tweet.
‘Be careful of a trap, @realDonaldTrump. Any fireworks will backfire badly,’ Zarif wrote.
In a sign of just how tense the situation in the Gulf is, Iraqi explosives experts were working to defuse a large mine discovered on an oil tanker in the Persian Gulf and evacuate its crew, authorities said Friday.
The statement came a day after two private security firms said sailors feared they had found a limpet mine on the MT Pola, a Liberian-flagged tanker in the waters off the Iraqi port of Basra.
A limpet mine is a type of naval mine that attaches to the side of a ship, usually by a diver-member of special forces. It later explodes, and can significantly damage a vessel.
Iran has denied that it intends to attack American troops. On Saturday, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif accused arch-enemy Israel of planning to using ‘agent-provacateurs’ to kill US service members in order to provoke Trump into responding against Tehran
‘New intelligence from Iraq indicate that Israeli agent-provocateurs are plotting attacks against Americans – putting an outgoing (President Donald) Trump in a bind with a fake casus belli (act justifying war),’ Zarif said in a tweet. ‘Be careful of a trap, @realDonaldTrump. Any fireworks will backfire badly,’ Zarif wrote
The Iraqi statement said the mine had been attached to a tanker rented from Iraq´s Oil Marketing Company SOMO that was refueling another vessel.
Iraq’s naval forces were making ‘a great effort to accomplish the mission’ safely, said Iraq’s Security Media Cell, which is affiliated with the country´s security forces.
It was the first official Iraqi confirmation that a mine was discovered on an Iraqi tanker transferring fuel in the Persian Gulf to another vessel.
It did not identify either vessels or provide more details.
Meanwhile, Iran has told the United Nations nuclear watchdog it plans to enrich uranium to up to 20 per cent purity, a level it achieved before its 2015 accord, at its Fordow site buried inside a mountain, the agency said on Friday.
The move is the latest of several recent announcements by Iran to the International Atomic Energy Agency that it plans to further breach the deal, which it started violating in 2019 in retaliation for Washington’s withdrawal from the agreement and the reimposition of U.S. sanctions against Tehran.
This step was one of many mentioned in a law passed by Iran’s parliament last month in response to the killing of the country’s top nuclear scientist, which Tehran has blamed on Israel.
Such moves by Iran could complicate efforts by President-elect Joe Biden to rejoin the deal.
General Esmail Ghaani, Soleimani’s successor as the new head of Quds Force, speaks during a ceremony on the occasion of first anniversary of death of the force’s previous head General Qassem Soleimani in Tehran on Friday
‘Iran has informed the Agency that in order to comply with a legal act recently passed by the country’s parliament, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran intends to produce low-enriched uranium (LEU) up to 20 percent at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant,’ the IAEA said in a statement.
An IAEA report to member states earlier on Friday obtained by Reuters used similar wording in describing a letter by Iran to the IAEA dated December 31.
‘Iran’s letter to the Agency … did not say when this enrichment activity would take place,’ the IAEA statement said.
Fordow was built inside a mountain, apparently to protect it from aerial bombardment, and the 2015 deal does not allow enrichment there.
Iran is already enriching at Fordow with first-generation IR-1 centrifuges.
Iran has breached the deal’s 3.67 per cent limit on the purity to which it can enrich uranium, but it has only gone up to 4.5 per cent so far, well short of the 20 per cent it achieved before the deal and the 90 per cent that is weapons-grade.
The deal’s main aim was to extend the time Iran would need to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb, if it chose to, to at least a year from roughly two to three months.
It also lifted international sanctions against Tehran.
US intelligence agencies and the IAEA believe Iran had a secret, coordinated nuclear weapons program that it halted in 2003.
Iran denies ever having had one.