'Mother of all distractions': Trump threatens war with Iran as his COVID-19 failures pile up
US President Donald Trump has an unpredictable negotiating style and likes to break with precedent. (AFP/File / SAUL LOEB)

President Donald Trump tweeted Wednesday morning that he has instructed the U.S. Navy to "shoot down and destroy" any Iranian vessels that "harass" American warships in the Persian Gulf.

Critics slammed the threat as an effort to distract from the president's abysmal response to the deadly coronavirus pandemic, which has now infected more than 800,000 people and killed at least 40,000 in the United States.

"If the xenophobia isn't doing the trick and providing a good enough distraction, there's always the classic authoritarian move: gin up a war," said Matt Duss, foreign policy adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

Trump's tweet came a week after the U.S. Navy accused Iranian gunboats of making "dangerous and harassing approaches" to American warships in the Persian Gulf.

"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 wrote.

"The mother of all distractions," Trita Parsi, executive vice president at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, said of Trump's tweet.

The president's threat closely followed a "Fox & Friends" segment on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' successful launch of a new military satellite on Wednesday.

John Bolton, the ultra-hawkish former national security adviser who has pressed for war with Iran for years, tweeted that "Iran's launch of a military satellite is proof we are still not applying enough pressure, deterrence has not been restored, and coronavirus is not slowing down the ayatollahs."