This order is a reminder that not every malevolent act relates to the spread of a pandemic. Iran has been escalating its provocations in the Persian Gulf, which it claims to be anti-smuggling patrols and security for Iranian vessels. What it actually entails, according to the US Navy, are aggressive and provocative acts by Iranian gunboats around American ships in international waters. Eleven Iranian boats circled US Navy ships at close quarters last week, with guns unsecured, in what Pentagon called an “unsafe and unprofessional interaction”:
The Iranians issued a statement after the US Navy went public with these complaints, basically ordering us out of the region:
The Guards’ statement on Sunday, which said Iran will give a decisive response to any mistake by the United States in the Gulf, provided the first confirmation of the incident.
“We advise the Americans to follow international regulations and maritime protocols in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman and to refrain from any adventurism and false and fake stories,” the statement said.
“They should be assured that the Revolutionary Guards navy and the powerful armed forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran sees the dangerous actions of foreigners in the region as a threat to national security and its red line and any error in calculation on their part will receive a decisive response.”
It was that threat which led to Donald Trump’s response, via his favorite medium:
I have instructed the United States Navy to shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 22, 2020
Iran had just this week bragged that it had a faster and more powerful fleet than the US, and perhaps they might have been itching to test that out:
Iranian Revolutionary Guard Navy commander Rear Admiral Alireza Tangsiri said Monday that his forces now “have a variety of surface-to-surface missiles with a range of 700 km [more than 430 miles] produced domestically.” He also touted the production of new warships, such as the 55-meter catamaran-style helicopter carrier inaugurated in 2016, along with other vessels that are said to be capable of reading speeds of up to 90 knots, or “three times faster than American vessels.”
“Wherever the Americans have been present, insecurity has arisen, and we do not know where the presence of the United States has led to security,” Tangsiri said.
He referenced the recent encounter in which up to 11 armed Revolutionary Guard fast-attack craft appeared to approach and circle ships of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet in the Persian Gulf, arguing that “contrary to international regulations, the Americans blocked the way for our vessels and refused to respond to the radio, which was met with a powerful confrontation by our forces.”
The Fifth Fleet has alleged that it was Iran’s Revolutionary Guard that initiated what the Navy group described as an “unsafe and unprofessional interaction,” ignoring repeated warnings for more than an hour and a half. The Persian Gulf has for decades been a flashpoint for U.S.-Iran tensions, which have escalated during the past year.
Reuters noted in its report that these provocations had been mainly a thing of the past until the strike on Qassem Soleimani earlier this year. That’s not entirely true; the Iranians had been harassing shipping in the Gulf prior to that strike in early January, and its increased activity is likely more tied to the reimposition of sanctions by Trump on Iran. That had included the targeting of a military drone over international waters last fall, which Trump at the time let slide with a warning, but the attacks on US positions in Iraq prompted the Soleimani strike.
Trump’s order this morning, assuming that he actually did pass this along as an order, is undoubtedly his way of reminding the Iranians that he can multi-task. If they want to provoke a military conflict as a means of distracting Iranians from their terrible leadership, Trump could oblige them — as he demonstrated with the strike on Soleimani. These gunboat runs are clear threats to the security of the American ships, which have every right to sail in international waters without being harassed by other militaries.
Of course, this might also have something to do with it:
The Navy is expected to release its investigation into the USS Theodore Roosevelt situation today https://t.co/3AxA0YuGUV
— Dave Brown (@dave_brown24) April 22, 2020
Meh. If anything, Trump would probably root for Captain Crozier’s exoneration, so that he can personally order his reinstatement and soak up the goodwill from it. The extended FUBAR of former Navy Secretary Thomas Modly is distinct enough from Trump not to be all that much of a concern. If the report criticizes the Pentagon’s response to Crozier’s warnings, that’s more on Modly and maybe Mark Esper than Trump, even if the media will try to make it more about Trump.
Iran’s testing Trump with these provocations. This warning might be enough for them to pull back. Let’s hope that’s the case, but we can’t wait for Iran to get the message before they start hijacking American shipping in the Gulf. If Soleimani’s sudden achievement of room temperature didn’t teach them any better, it might unfortunately be time for another lesson.