In Depth

Are US-Iran tensions flaring again?

Trump threatens military action over Twitter

The US and Iranian governments are at odds again after Donald Trump threatened military action against the Middle Eastern state. 

The US president posted the warning to the Iranian navy on Twitter on Wednesday, 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.”

The president seemed to be reacting to a confrontation on 15 April, when the US military said numerous small craft from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) sped within yards of US warships in the Persian Gulf in a series of “dangerous and harassing approaches”.

“We don’t want their gunboats surrounding our boats, and travelling around our boats and having a good time,” Trump told reporters. “We’re not going to stand for it… They’ll shoot them out of the water,” reports Sky News.

Trump’s declaration changes the rules of engagement for US vessels, which normally have to be under direct threat to use lethal force. 

Why now?

CNN has a theory as to why the president’s threat came when it did. “Roughly a half hour before Trump tweeted Wednesday, Fox & Friends, which Trump regularly watches, aired a segment about the incident, as well as a report on Iran launching its first military satellite into orbit,” it said. 

While the hostilities between the two countries far predates the Covid-19 pandemic, The New York Times speculates that the current rise in tensions may not be totally disconnected.

“At home, the Iranian government and Mr. Trump’s administration have been criticised for mismanaging the response to the virus, and leaders in both nations may calculate that there is an advantage to reigniting confrontations with old adversaries,” the newspaper says.

As the oil industry relies so heavily on tankers passing freely from oil-producing gulf nations through the Strait of Hormuz, and out into the open ocean, any chance of disruption in the region raises the price of oil reliably.

With the oil industry reeling from the freefall in prices caused by the now-ended oil war, and more significantly by the demand-vaporising coronavirus pandemic, prices suddenly rebounded on Wednesday following Trump’s tweet.

What has the reaction been?

Iran responded with its own threat, saying they are prepared to destroy American warships if their security is threatened in the Persian Gulf.

The head of the IRGC, Hossein Salami, said: “I have ordered our naval forces to destroy any American terrorist force in the Persian Gulf that threatens security of Iran’s military or non-military ships. Security of the Persian Gulf is part of Iran’s strategic priorities.

“I am telling the Americans that we are absolutely determined and serious in defending our national security, our water borders, our shipping safety, and our security forces, and we will respond decisively to any sabotage. Americans have experienced our power in the past and must learn from it.”

Despite Iran’s threats, Trump’s allies have supported his message. The vice-chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General John Hyten, said Trump’s tweet was a useful warning to Iran.

He said Iranian naval activity last week “goes right along with the harassment from the fastboats,” he said. “You put those two things together and it’s just more examples of Iranian malign behaviour and misbehaviour,” ITV News reports.

“The president issued an important warning to the Iranians,” David Norquist, the deputy secretary of defence, said at a Pentagon news conference when asked about the tweet.

“What he was emphasising is, all of our ships retain the right of self-defence.” 

But General Abolfazl Shekarchi, a spokesperson for Iran’s armed forces, accused Trump of “bullying” and said he should focus on the US coronavirus problem, says Sky News.

Why are the two countries so hostile to each other?

Trump’s strident announcement was consistent with his administration’s “maximum pressure” Iran approach. He has talked openly about restoring deterrence against the Middle Eastern nation, and considers the previous administration’s purportedly lenient approach to have allowed Tehran to become too assertive.

It was in this vein that the US killed Iranian major general Qasem Soleimani early this year.

Specifically, as a presidential candidate in 2016, Trump said at a rally that when Iranians “circle our beautiful destroyers with their little boats… they will be shot out of the water”.

“Mr Trump has frequently said any US retaliation to serious Iranian actions would be swift and significant,” reports the Financial Times. “But US defence officials are concerned that Iran is prepared to bear losses from any US military response if it helped Tehran achieve its strategic goal of forcing the US from the region.”

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