Iran’s maritime forces have, on many occasions, harassed U.S. Navy and Coast Guard vessels in the Persian Gulf. Most recently, on April 15, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Navy dispatched 11 gunboats to interfere with American ships conducting a training exercise in international waters. In response to that provocative action, President Trump has instructed the Navy to “shoot down and destroy” any Iranian boats that harass U.S. ships.
On April 22, the president revealed the decision in a tweet, saying: “I have instructed the United States Navy to shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea.” According to at least one media report, a spokesman for the Defense Department said that no specific directive had been received from the president.
However, on April 22, Deputy Secretary of Defense David Norquist referred to Trump’s message during a Pentagon press briefing. “All of our ships retain the right of self-defense, and people need to be very careful in their interactions to understand the right of self-defense,” he said.
Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman, Air Force Gen. John Hyten, also commented on the matter, implying that the Navy interprets the president’s warning to Iran as a green light to respond to further harassment:
“I like that the President warned an adversary. That’s what he’s doing – he’s providing a warning, ‘If you want to go down that path, we will come, and we will come large, so don’t go down that path.’ That is what he’s saying. He’s saying it in clear, certain terms. We understand that direction and every commander that’s deployed has the ability to execute that.”
The current rules of engagement forbid American ships from using lethal force unless attacked, and there appears to be no official change. Since the April 15 incident, Iran has engaged in no additional actions.
In reality, then, nothing has changed, but Trump has put the Iranians on notice that they cannot act with complete impunity. “If you come across and you’re in a safe distance, and you’re waving, that’s one thing,” Gen. Hyten said. “If you have a gun and you point it at me, that’s another thing. We know exactly what that means. If you cross that line – we know what that line is – and we will respond. We don’t need any more direction in order to do that. I think the President’s message was crystal clear.”
Despite the tweet, it is unlikely that American ships will begin firing upon approaching Iranian vessels, but perhaps naval commanders will be less reluctant to respond to potential threats. That leaves the IRGC uncertain of what response it could expect in future encounters.
How long will it resist the urge to find out?
Read more from Graham J. Noble.
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