U.S. President Donald Trump says he has ordered the U.S. Navy to destroy any armed Iranian boats that harass American ships. This comes a week after 11 boats from Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy swarmed U.S. military vessels in international waters in the Persian Gulf, getting dangerously close at times.
It also follows Iran's announcement that it had successfully placed its first military satellite into orbit after launching it using a Qassed space launch rocket. The United States and others accuse Iran of using its nascent space program as a cover for research and development into long-range ballistic missiles.
Trump announced his new instructions to the Navy via Tweet on Apr. 22, 2020. He offered no specifics on the exact new rules of engagement for American warships with regards to Iranian boats. It's not clear whether destroying foreign vessels in the absence of a physical attack or a formal declaration of hostilities would necessarily be legal under international law.
"I have instructed the United States Navy to shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea," Trump's Tweet read.
Last week, the Navy did highlight how Iran's maritime harassment could be seen as threatening and raises the risks of miscalculations, as well as collisions. For its part, Iran later claimed it was conducting its own exercises and blamed “the unprofessional and provocative actions of the United States and their indifference to warnings" for the incident, but offered no evidence to support its claims. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) also subsequently released its own footage of another separate encounter with an American ship in the Persian Gulf.
Iran has a long history of harassing and otherwise shadowing American warships in the Persian Gulf. In December 2019, a large group of IRGC boats sailed very close to the Nimitz class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and other ships from her strike group as they passed through the highly strategic Strait of Hormuz. The Navy later told The War Zone that that incident was "within normal behavior patterns for Iran."
Still, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' fleets of small watercraft do present a real threat, especially when deployed in swarms and if they are used in conjunction with barrages of anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles, submarine attacks, naval mining, and unmanned suicide drones and boats. The U.S. ships involved in the incident last week, which included the expeditionary sea base USS Lewis B. Puller, had been training with U.S. Army AH-64E Apache attack helicopters, which would be ideal for countering small boat swarms. In March, the Navy conducted an exercise with a U.S. Air Force AC-130W gunship that was also focused on small boat threats.
It's not entirely clear what prompted the President to declare this newly aggressive stance now, days after the most recent incident. However, the topic of Iranian naval harassment did come up on Fox News' "Fox & Friends" hours before, as an aside to Iran's space launch. Trump has said in the past that he is an avid watcher of this television program.
The satellite launch itself, which took place in the Dasht-e Kavir desert rather than at the Imam Khomeini Space Center, is almost certain to draw the ire of the U.S. government. Officials in Washington say that the regime in Tehran uses its space program to skirt international sanctions and other prohibitions on its ballistic missile programs and could help in the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile, which Iranian authorities deny.
Iran described the satellite, called Nour, as a "multi-purpose" system, but its exact roles and capabilities are unclear. In addition to being Iran's first successful deployment of a satellite for military purposes in space, the country's powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) said it was responsible, which would be its first-ever space launch mission. The rocket itself, the Qassed, is a previously unseen design.
This would also be the first successful space launch for Iran after a string of failures last year. In August 2019, Trump notably Tweeted out a U.S. satellite intelligence picture of the remains of a Safir space launch vehicle after it blew up on the launch pad during another satellite launch attempt at the Imam Khomeini Space Center.
Trump's threat coupled with the space launch is almost certain to increase already heightened tensions between the United States and Iran, which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Iran has been especially hard hit by the spread of the virus, raising concerns among experts and observers that the regime in Tehran might lash out to distract from growing domestic criticism of its response to the pandemic.
The U.S. Navy, or any other American military service, sinking Iranian boats for any reason would almost certainly draw some sort of response, regardless. The U.S. decision to kill Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad, Iraq, in January, the penultimate event in the most serious spike in U.S.-Iran tensions recently, prompted Iran to retaliate with unprecedented ballistic missile strikes aimed at American troops.
All told, the risk of conflict, or at least an active skirmish, between the United States and Iran, which was already relatively high, seems to be growing once again.
We will continue to update this story as more information becomes available.
UPDATE: 11:30am EST:
Deputy Secretary of Defense David Norquist has said that Trump's Tweet reflects U.S. military's inherent right to self-defense, rather than a new directive. Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff U.S. Air Force General John Hyten also noted that American forces would respond with "overwhelming force" to any hostile action.
"I like that the President warned an adversary," he added. "If you wanna go down that path, we will come and we will come large."
At the same time, Hyten said "you can't let a fast boat get into a position where they can threaten your ship" and indicated that forces in the Middle East could use Trump's Tweet as the basis for their rules of engagement going forward. The general also declined to say whether Navy captains should engage Iranian boats, in general, as the President has suggested.
Hyten also said the U.S. military had not yet assessed whether the Iranian satellite launch had been successful.
UPDATE: 11:50am EST:
Fox News is reporting that the U.S. government has no indication that Iran's Nour satellite reached orbit, rebutting Iran's claims that the launch was successful. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also now criticized the launch.
UPDATE: 12:50pm EST:
Abolfazl Shekarchi, a spokesman for Iran's armed forces, has responded to Trump's Tweet. "Today, instead of bullying others, the Americans should put all their efforts toward saving those members of their forces who are infected with coronavirus," he said, according to the country's semi-official ISNA news agency.
At the time of writing, the U.S. military says that there have been 5,734 confirmed cases among its uniformed service members, civilians, contractors, and dependents. This includes 777 sailors assigned to the Nimitz class aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, which is presently moored in Guam indefinitely after experiencing a particularly serious outbreak subsequently turned into a major scandal.
As noted already, however, Iran has also been particularly hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and there are allegations, even from the country's own parliament, that the regime in Tehran is undercounting cases and deaths.
UPDATE: 7:40pm EST:
In response to questions about his Tweet, President Donald Trump has now said that he has not directed any changes to the existing rules of engagement for U.S. Navy ships operating in the Middle East. "We're covered 100 percent" already, he added.
Contrary to earlier reports, the U.S. military has also now confirmed that the Nour satellite did, in fact, successfully reach orbit.
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