In that statement, posted to Twitter on April 21, the president said he had instructed the Navy to destroy Iranian gunboats if they harassed U.S. ships.
Speaking at a Pentagon briefing later, civilian and uniformed officials at the Department of Defense characterized the tweet as more of a warning than an explicit shift in rules of engagement or standing orders, but praised the president’s statement.
Trump wrote on Twitter, “I have instructed the United States Navy to shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea.”
Asked whether that message meant a change in standing orders, Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist told reporters: “The president issued an important warning to the Iranians. What he was emphasizing is that all of our ships retain the right of self-defense. The president is describing and responding to poor behavior of the Iranians.”
Gen. John E. Hyten, the deputy chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, denied that the word “harass” was hard to interpret in terms of thresholds for military engagement.
“The president made a clear statement,” Hyten told reporters. “I think the Iranians understand that. I think the American people understand that. We as the military have to apply that clear direction from the commander in chief into lawful orders that we execute. And we know what that means. We have no doubt what that means.”
The president’s warning follows an incident last week in which 11 Iranian boats were filmed buzzing six U.S. Navy ships in the Persian Gulf, coming as close as 10 yards in an hour-long encounter.
Asked if such an incident would now trigger a lethal response following Trump’s tweet, Hyten refused to make a general pronouncement.
“I would have to be the captain of the ship to make that decision—it depends on the situation and what the captain sees. You can’t let a fast boat get into a position where they can threaten your ship,” he said.
“We don’t talk about rules of engagement in public, but they are based on the inherent right of self-defense, they are based on hostile action, hostile intent. That’s all we need in order to take the right action.
“I like that the president warned an adversary; that’s what he’s doing.”
On April 21, the Iranian military claimed to have added new longer-range anti-ship missiles to its arsenal, and on April 22 said it successfully launched its first military satellite after several failed attempts.
The developments come following several months of heightened military tensions between the two countries.
On April 15, the U.S. Navy revealed footage and images of 11 Iranian vessels coming “dangerously close” to six U.S. vessels.
According to the Navy statement, the Iranian navy ships were “repeatedly crossing their bows and sterns while they were conducting integration operations with U.S. Army Apache attack helicopters to support maritime security outside of Iran’s territorial waters.”
“The IRGCN vessels repeatedly crossed the bows and sterns of the U.S. vessels at extremely close range and high speeds, including multiple crossings of the Puller with a 50-yard closest point of approach and within 10 yards of Maui’s bow.”
Following the president’s message on April 21, the State Department published a statement describing Iran’s “history of naval provocations” in recent years.
“Iran has long used its naval forces to terrorize the international maritime community,” said the statement, which outlined a pattern of Iran using naval harassment as leverage for sanctions relief.
“In 2015, during negotiations of the Iran Deal and after its adoption, the U.S. Navy recorded 22 incidents of unsafe and unprofessional conduct by the IRGC Navy (IRGCN), many that risked collision. An additional 36 incidents of unsafe and unprofessional conduct were recorded in 2016.”
Those incidents of naval harassment “sharply dropped” after October 2017 when Trump “made clear the United States would not tolerate the status quo from Iran, nor appease their provocations.”
That lull in incidents continued even after the United States withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal.
Then, in May 2019, according to the State Department, Iran “began a panicked campaign of aggression to extort the world into granting it sanctions relief,” targeting ships across the world.
“In response to the elevated risk posed to commercial vessels transiting the Strait of Hormuz, the United States spearheaded the creation of the International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC), a coalition of eight European, Middle Eastern, and Asian nations,” the statement reads. “Since the IMSC was stood up in August 2019, Iranian mine attacks have ceased.
“President Trump will not tolerate or appease Iran’s foreign policy of violence and intimidation. Iran must act like every other normal nation, not a nation that sponsors piracy and terror.”