On Wednesday April 22nd, President Donald Trump contributed to the latest escalation of tensions in the Persian Gulf. On Wednesday night, the U.S. president tweeted that “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 U.S. Naval Forces Central Command reported that one week prior to Trump’s tweet, 11 Iranian gunboats harassed and circled six U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf. This is the latest security incident to manifest in the Persian Gulf as a result of the wider U.S.-Iran tensions in the region.
On April 15th, the U.S. Navy announced that Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) patrol boats had harassed a U.S. patrol in international waters at the northern end of the Persian Gulf. A Navy spokesman said that IRGC boats came “as close as 10 yards to a Coast Guard cutter.” The spokesman continued to state that “the IRGCN’s dangerous and provocative actions increased the risk of miscalculation and collision and were not in accordance with international regulation.”
However, IRGC spokesman Abolfazl Shekarchi rebuked the statement. He suggested that the U.S. should focus on saving its servicemembers from coronavirus infection. The ISNA news agency has quoted Mr. Shekarchi as saying, “today, instead of bullying others, the Americans should put all their efforts toward saving those members of their forces who are infected with coronavirus.” Currently, the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier is out of action. Its crew have been quarantined after widespread cases of COVID-19 were detected aboard the carrier.
Trump’s statement is the latest escalation in tensions between the U.S. and Iran in the Gulf. In January, the U.S. conducted a drone strike in Iraq that killed top IRGC commander Qassem Soleimani. This brought the two nations to the brink of war. Trump’s tweet can be seen as one of the most openly provocative statements since the strike and risks raising simmering tensions into outright open conflict in the Gulf region.
Despite Trump’s provocative tweet, the U.S. naval command appears more hesitant in escalating tensions with Iran. The Washington Post reported that “the nation’s No. 2 military officer later said the decision to use deadly force against an Iranian ship is up to individual Navy commanders, depending on the level of threat to their ships and sailors.” This statement appears to show a disconnect in approach between the White House and the Pentagon, with the latter taking a more cautious approach.
Trump’s continuation of war rhetoric in the ongoing dispute with Iran is likely to continue to destabilize the region. It may also further drag nations such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Israel into unchartered territory that risks open conflict with Iran. The very presence of large numbers of U.S. warships off the Iranian coast must be questioned as well. Do these ships help protect freedom of navigation and international maritime peace? Or are they an antagonistic threat that may lead to the U.S. and Iran trading blows? With millions across the region facing extreme insecurity, can the Middle East withstand another Gulf war?
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