January 3, 2021 was the one-year anniversary of the killing of Iranian Quds Force leader Major General Qasem Soleimani by a U.S. drone. Over the past two weeks, the press has been reporting that tensions have escalated between the United States and Iran and that the U.S. military was concerned that Iran may strike U.S. personnel in the region. Iraqi militias supported by Iran conducted a sizable rocket attack on the U.S. embassy complex in Baghdad on December 23. In response, President Trump tweeted: “Some friendly health advice to Iran: If one American is killed, I will hold Iran responsible. Think it over…”. On December 31, Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Chris Miller ordered the USS Nimitz carrier strike group to leave the Middle East and return to its home port after a ten-month deployment. According to press reports, this redeployment decision was against the recommendations of the senior U.S. commander in the Middle East and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Late on January 3, the Pentagon released the following statement regarding the Nimitz strike group: “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. 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.”
As noted in the last report, times of political transition can be fraught with danger as outgoing political entities seek to either complete projects or cement in their policy preferences. In the last report, two reasons were posited for President Trump potentially ordering a strike on Iran in the waning days of his administration:
- A belief that the Biden administration will be too soft on Iran and that Trump must reduce Iran’s conventional of potential nuclear capabilities; or
- That President Trump desires to burnish his “tough guy” credentials to help a run for president in 2024.
A third, and even less settling possibility, is that President Trump believes that ordering a strike would somehow help him with his ongoing attempts to deny the election results and remain in office.
Late on January 3, a highly unusual op-ed was published in the Washington Post, written by ten former U.S. Secretaries of Defense, including the last two appointed by President Trump, that essentially warned off President Trump from trying to have the U.S. military intervene in any way in the election results. While the op-ed focuses largely on the domestic use of U.S. forces to interfere in election results, ordering U.S. military action – something President Trump can do without any permission from Congress – could also be seen as within the scope of this warning.
The chances of an actual clash remain small. It remains in Iran’s interest to avoid a military confrontation with the outgoing Trump administration and position itself for negotiations with the Biden administration in the hope of some form of sanctions relief. The U.S. military uniformed leadership, while it did not want the Nimitz redeployed, also is not itching to start a war with Iran. Even if the Nimitz is turned around, it will likely stay within strike range but fairly far from Iranian forces (and certainly will not pass through the Strait of Hormuz anytime soon). However, chance can play a role, for example, through an Iranian-supported Iraqi militia which fires rockets that happen to kill an American in Iraq this time around.