President Donald Trump has ordered the American military to shoot and destroy any Iranian vessels that harass US navy ships, as tensions rise in the Gulf in the wake of a record collapse in crude oil prices.
“I have instructed the United States Navy to shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea,” Mr Trump wrote in a tweet on Wednesday morning, without providing any more detail about the order.
US Central Command, which overseas military operations in the Middle East, last week said it issued warnings to 11 Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) ships that harassed US navy and coastguard ships in the Gulf.
The Pentagon described the Iranian actions as “dangerous”. Central Command said the ships repeatedly crossed the bows and sterns of the US vessels at close range and high speeds for about an hour.
The head of the IRGC navy, Rear Admiral Alireza Tangsiri, on Monday accused the US of “adventurism”.
“Americans blocked the path of our vessel against international regulations and refused to answer our radio calls but faced our forces’ powerful reaction,” he said.
The IRGC has dismissed the US account of the incident as a Hollywood tale. It said it had increased naval patrols after the US obstructed an Iranian navy vessel called the Shahid Siavoshi, resulting in an encounter with American warships on April 15 in which it “pushed them away”.
Mr Trump’s order comes as the White House struggles to deal with the collapse in crude oil prices as economies contract because of the coronavirus pandemic. The price of Brent crude oil, which had slid earlier on Wednesday, spiked about 10 per cent after the tweet.
Mr Trump on Saturday said he did not see evidence of countries around the world — including Iran, Russia, China and North Korea — taking advantage of the coronavirus crisis to provoke the US military.
“No, I don’t see it,” Mr Trump responded to a question at a White House press conference. “Iran was a terror when I came into office. Right now, they don’t want to mess around with us.”
John Bolton, the former US national security adviser, last week said Mr Trump should respond more strongly to the “provocative” behaviour.
“We have been too lenient in responding to these incidents — that must change,” Mr Bolton said. “US must . . . act to re-establish deterrence.”
Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, on Wednesday criticised Iran over reports that Tehran had launched its first military satellite, called Noor, into space.
“Iran needs to be held accountable for what they’ve done,” Mr Pompeo said, adding that the launch by the IRGC, which the US designates as a terrorist organisation, contravened a UN resolution.
Mr Pompeo said Mr Trump had stressed that he would take whatever action was necessary to protect the US.
Mr Trump has frequently said any US retaliation to serious Iranian actions would be swift and significant. 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.
US troops in Iraq, which number more than 5,000, are vulnerable to attack from Iran-aligned Shia militia groups that were outraged by Mr Trump’s decision to kill Iran’s top military commander Qassem Soleimani in January.
The US is also concerned that the coronavirus outbreak in Iran might result in Iranian leaders trying to unify the country against a common enemy and force a more aggressive posture against the US.
A US defence official said Washington viewed periodic efforts from Iran to threaten US vessels as “serious” and part of a broader effort to assert control over the region. The official said the US was assessing whether recent events resulted from ad hoc decisions from individual commanders or were part of a broader effort to bring greater maritime pressure to bear.
Additional reporting by Myles McCormick
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi