Iran issues threat against US after Trump warning over incident in Gulf
ISTANBUL - Iran and the United States are caught up in an escalating war of words over tensions in the Gulf, as any chance that the coronavirus pandemic might soften the confrontation between the two countries fades.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) issued a threat against US warships in the Gulf on April 23, following by a warning by US President Donald Trump that American navy vessels would sink IRGC speed boats engaging in provocative action.
“We declare to the Americans that we are absolutely determined and serious… and that all action will be met with a decisive response that will be efficient and quick,” IRGC commander Major General Hossein Salami said. “We have also ordered our naval units to target [US boats and forces] if they try to endanger the safety of our ships or boats of war.”
Trump tweeted his warning a day earlier in an apparent response to a recent incident when 11 IRGC vessels came dangerously close to US warships in the Gulf. At one point, the Iranian vessels came within metres of the US Coast Guard cutter Maui.
“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 tweeted.
“This has the potential to turn very ugly,” said Ellie Geranmayeh, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), a think tank in London.
“The IRGC has conducted a policy of confrontation against the US since May last year,” when Washington decided to bring Iranian oil exports to zero, Geranmayeh said by telephone.“They want to make clear to the United States that the cost of the policy of pressure against Iran is going to increase.”
Geranmayeh pointed to recent military confrontations between US and Iranian-backed forces in Iraq, the speedboat incident earlier this month and the launch of Iran’s first military satellite on April 22. “They are trying to force the president to recalculate and change his position.”
Trump said the official rules of engagement for US naval forces in the Gulf had not changed, suggesting that the presidential tweet was meant as a public warning to Iran rather than as a signal that the US military will take a more belligerent approach in encounters with Iranian boats.
The US has deployed powerful navy and air force units in the Gulf region to support allies such as Saudi Arabia against possible Iranian aggression and to guard the international oil trade.
Shortly before Trump took to Twitter, the IRGC announced it had successfully launched Iran’s first military satellite. The United States charges Iran’s satellite programme is a cover for its development of missiles.
The launch immediately raised concerns among experts on whether the technology used could help Iran develop intercontinental ballistic missiles. On April 21, Iran said it had extended the range of its naval missiles to 700 kilometres.
The Revolutionary Guard sought propaganda value in the announcement of the launch by timing it to coincide with the 41st anniversary of the creation of the IRGC under former Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. It released a photograph showing Iranian General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, head of the IRGC's "aerospace division" posing at the launch site of the military satellite.
Some political figures in the US pointed to Tehran’s satellite announcement to call for even tougher measures against Tehran. Trump says his “maximum pressure” strategy against Iran is designed to force the leadership of the Islamic Republic to accept stricter limits for the country’s nuclear programme and for Iran’s missile projects. Decades-old acrimony between the two sides worsened in 2018 when Trump unilaterally withdrew from a deal that gave Iran relief from sanctions in return for curbs on its nuclear programme.
John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, said on Twitter that Iran's launch of the military satellite “is proof we are still not applying enough pressure."
In a letter to Trump, 50 former senior US officials and experts on Iran accused Tehran of using COVID-19, the lung disease caused by the coronavirus, 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.
Geranmayeh, of the ECFR, said that parallel to the IRGC actions, the Iranian government was trying to explore possibilities for a diplomatic track to manage relations with the US by appealing to Trump to lift some sanctions or by applying for a $5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that the US would have to agree to.
“It’s a carrot and stick approach, and what we are seeing now with the IRGC is the stick of the equation,” Geranmayeh said.
But so far the US was not responding, Geranmayeh added. “The US has missed a real opportunity on the back of the Covid-19 crisis,” she said, referring to Washington’s rejection of any sanction relief during the pandemic. “We haven’t seen the US budge.”