The US flew nuclear-capable B-52 bombers to the Middle East Wednesday in the latest show of force meant to deter Iran, as defense officials remain divided over the risk posed by the regime and the Iraq-based militias it supports.
Pentagon officials say the military muscle-flexing is meant to warn Tehran off attacking American interests or personnel in the days surrounding the January 3 anniversary of the Trump administration's assassination of the powerful Iranian leader Gen. Qasem Soleimani.
At the same time, acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller decided Wednesday against a push to extend the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz's deployment to the Persian Gulf, sending it out of the region in an explicit de-escalation signal to Iran, according to a senior defense official.
The conflicting messages could reflect divisions within the Pentagon, where a second senior defense official tells CNN that the current threat level from Iran is the most concerning they have seen since Soleimani's death. Officials cite new intelligence that Iran and allied militias in Iraq may be plotting attacks against US forces in the Middle East. For example, Iran has been moving short range ballistic missiles into Iraq, prompting the US to deploy additional military assets to the region.
Yet others in the Pentagon contend that the threat is being exaggerated, with the first senior defense official -- who is directly involved in discussions -- telling CNN that there is "not a single piece of corroborating intel" suggesting an attack by Iran may be imminent.
Asked about push back on the threat, another senior military official told CNN, "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."
This official went on to say that while nothing is 100%, there are some indications that the posture and messaging by the US has changed Iran's calculus.
"It's all very uncertain right now but we want the Iranians to know that they should not miscalculate and that we are not trying to provoke them and they should not provoke us," the official said.