The leader of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has ordered his forces to potentially target the US Navy after President Donald Trump’s tweet a day earlier threatening to sink Iranian vessels.
Iran separately summoned the Swiss ambassador, who looks out for America’s interests in the country, to complain about Mr Trump’s threat after months of escalating attacks between the two countries.
While the coronavirus pandemic temporarily paused those tensions, Iran has since begun pushing back against the Trump administration’s maximum pressure policy both militarily and diplomatically.
The Guard also launched Iran’s first military satellite on Wednesday, unveiling a previously secret space programme.
I have instructed the United States Navy to shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 22, 2020
Speaking to state television on Thursday, Guard General Hossein Salami warned his forces “will answer any action by a decisive, effective and quick counteraction”.
“We have ordered our naval units at sea that if any warships or military units from the naval force of America’s terrorist army wants to jeopardise our commercial vessels or our combat vessels, they must target those (American) warships or naval units,” Mr Salami said.
The latest dispute comes after the US Navy said last week 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 said they used a variety of non-lethal means to warn off the Iranian boats, and they eventually left. Iran accused the US of sparking the incident, without offering evidence.
Iran has had tense encounters at sea for years with the US Navy in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20% of all oil passes. The US has patrolled the area to protect global shipping for decades, something Iran describes as akin to it patrolling the Gulf of Mexico.
Mr Trump, facing a collapsing global energy market and the pandemic at home amid his re-election campaign, tweeted out a warning to Iran that he ordered the Navy to “shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea”.
“We don’t want their gunboats surrounding our boats, and travelling around our boats and having a good time,” Mr Trump told reporters on Wednesday evening at the White House. “We’re not going to stand for it. … They’ll shoot them out of the water.”
The International Crisis Group, noting the tensions, urged both countries to create a de-confliction hotline to avoid a possible military confrontation.
“In the absence of a major diplomatic breakthrough, an indirect military communications channel could go some way toward ensuring, at least, that a single incident will not spark a wider conflagration,” it said in a report on Thursday.
Iran in the past has rejected the idea of a hotline.
Meanwhile, the Guard surprised analysts by sending a satellite into space on Wednesday from a previously unused launch pad and with a new system.
While Iran stresses its programme is peaceful, Western nations fear it will help Iran build intercontinental ballistic missiles.
State television on Thursday said Iran received signals from the satellite, without elaborating. While American officials have not acknowledged the satellite reached orbit, open-source data from the US military suggested the “Noor,” or “Light”, satellite now orbited the Earth.
Uzi Rubin, fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and the founder of Israel’s missile defence programme, said the launch showed the Guard’s “further gain in wresting for power and in building its own state within a state”.
“The very act of launching a military satellite in the midst of the coronavirus crisis that is affecting Iran too is a statement of self confidence and perseverance by the ayatollahs to the West but mainly to its own population,” Mr Rubin said.