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Pentagon backs Trump’s threat to ‘destroy’ Iran ships as tensions rocket

Vice chairman of US Joint Chiefs of Staff says too soon to know if Tehran’s satellite launch was successful, calls it another example of ‘malign behavior,’ like Gulf skirmishes

Iranian Revolutionary Guard vessels sail close to US military ships in the Persian Gulf near Kuwait, April 15, 2020. (US Navy via AP)
Iranian Revolutionary Guard vessels sail close to US military ships in the Persian Gulf near Kuwait, April 15, 2020. (US Navy via AP)

The Pentagon on Wednesday welcomed US President Donald Trump’s warning to Iran that US forces would “shoot down and destroy” Iranian gunboats harassing Navy ships.

Tensions between Washington and Tehran flared anew Wednesday as Iran’s Revolutionary Guard conducted a space launch that could advance the country’s long-range missile program.

The launch was a first for the Guard, revealing what experts described as a secret military space program that could accelerate Iran’s ballistic missile development. American officials said it was too early to know whether an operational Iranian satellite was successfully placed into orbit. Trump’s top diplomat accused Iran of violating UN resolutions.

After Iran’s announcement, Trump wrote on Twitter, without citing any specific incident, “I have instructed the United States Navy to shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea.”

Last Wednesday, the US Navy reported that 11 Guard naval gunboats had carried out “dangerous and harassing approaches” to American Navy and Coast Guard vessels in the Persian Gulf. The Americans used a variety of nonlethal means to warn off the Iranian boats, and they eventually left. Such encounters were relatively common several years ago, but have been rare recently.

“We don’t want their gunboats surrounding our boats, and traveling around our boats and having a good time,” Trump told reporters Wednesday evening at the White House. “We’re not going to stand for it. … They’ll shoot them out of the water.”

At the Pentagon on Wednesday, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. John Hyten, hailed Trump’s tweet as a useful warning to Iran. He drew a parallel between last week’s naval encounter in the Gulf and Wednesday’s space launch, which said was “just another example of Iranian malign behavior.”

Vice President of the Joint Chiefs John E. Hyten of Staff. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

“And it goes right along with the harassment from the fastboats. … You put those two things together and it’s just more examples of Iranian malign behavior and misbehavior,” Hyten said.

Hyten said he thinks the Iranians understand what Trump meant. Asked whether the tweet means a repeat of last week’s incident in the Gulf would require a lethal US response, Hyten said, “I would have to be the captain of the ship in order to make that determination.” The nature of the response, he said, “depends on the situation and what the captain sees.”

Senior Pentagon officials gave no indication that Trump had directed a fundamental change in military policy on Iran.

“The president issued an important warning to the Iranians,” David Norquist, the deputy secretary of defense, said at a Pentagon news conference when asked about the tweet. “What he was emphasizing is, all of our ships retain the right of self-defense.”

Iran said the US was to blame for last week’s incident.

Hyten also said it was too soon to know whether the Iranian launch had successfully placed a satellite in orbit. He said US tracking technology showed the launch vehicle had traveled “a very long way, which means it has the ability once again to threaten their neighbors, their allies, and we want to make sure they can never threaten the United States.”

However, the Guardian reported that the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) had designated tracking numbers to objects matching the satellite and rocket, indicating they may have reached low orbit.

Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the Revolutionary Guard’s aerospace division, in front of an Iranian rocket carrying a satellite in an undisclosed site believed to be in Iran’s Semnan province, April 22, 2020. (Sepahnews via AP)

Conflict between Iran and the US escalated after the Trump administration withdrew from the international nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers in 2018 and reimposed crippling sanctions. Last May, the US sent thousands more troops, including long-range bombers and an aircraft carrier, to the Middle East in response to what it called a growing threat of Iranian attacks on US interests in the region.

The tensions spiked when US forces killed Iran’s most powerful general, Qassem Soleimani, in January. Iran responded with a ballistic missile attack on a base in western Iraq where US troops were present. No Americans were killed but more than 100 suffered mild traumatic brain injuries from the blasts.

Iran considers the heavy US military presence in the Middle East a threat to its security.

Rep. Elaine Luria, a Virginia Democrat and Navy veteran, said Trump’s tweeting could lead to war.

“The president’s continued issuing of orders to our military via tweet is a threat to our national security and, if followed without clear guidance and rules of engagement, will unnecessarily escalate tensions with Iran and possibly lead to all-out-conflict,” she said.

Gen. Abolfazl Shekarchi, a spokesman for Iran’s armed forces, accused Trump of “bullying” and said the American president should focus on caring for US service members infected with the coronavirus. The US military has more than 3,500 confirmed cases of coronavirus, and at least two service members have succumbed to COVID-19, the disease the virus causes.

The space launch has potentially bigger implications for conflict with Iran. US officials believe it is intended to advance Iran’s development of intercontinental-range ballistic missiles that could threaten the US.

Using a mobile launcher at a new site, the Guard said it put a “Noor,” or “Light,” satellite into a low orbit circling the Earth. Iranian state TV late Wednesday showed footage of what it said was the satellite, and said it had orbited the earth within 90 minutes. State TV said the satellite’s signals were being received.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United Nations needs to evaluate whether the space launch was consistent with Security Council resolutions. “I don’t think it remotely is, and I think Iran needs to be held accountable for what it’s done,” Pompeo said.

In a letter Wednesday to Trump, 50 former senior US officials and experts on Iran accused Tehran of using COVID-19 as a reason to pressure the US to ease sanctions while continuing to spend money to bankroll malign activities in the region. The administration has repeatedly said humanitarian aid to Iran is not affected by the sanctions.

The letter called on Trump “to double down on the maximum pressure campaign to force the mullahs to spend their money on the Iranian people, not their nuclear ambitions, imperialism, and internal oppression.”

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