A tweet by the U.S. President Donald Trump on April 22 said, “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 seems to be talking the language of war while indulging in politics by other means. Like his ban on immigration, Trump is resorting to distractions to turn attention away from his incompetence in tackling the COVID-19 crisis in the United States.
The Time report while referring to the tweet said, “The White House had no immediate comment. The U.S. Navy’s Bahrain-based 5th Fleet referred questions about the tweet to the Pentagon, and the Pentagon referred questions to the White House.”
Meanwhile, Tehran is plainly dismissive. The spokesman for the Iranian armed forces Brigadier General Abolfazl Shekarchi said disdainfully, “Instead of bullying others today, Americans should put their efforts into saving their forces, who have contracted coronavirus.”
Trump was ostensibly reacting to an allegation by the U.S. Navy on April 15 that 11 Iranian vessels had “repeatedly conducted dangerous and harassing approaches against multiple U.S. naval ships operating in international waters.” Speedboats belonging to the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Navy (IRGCN) apparently came too close to a squadron of U.S. warships sailing close to Iranian waters.
These warships included the expeditionary mobile base vessel Lewis B. Puller—a ship designed to serve as a platform for a U.S. invasion—the Paul Hamilton, a guided-missile destroyer, two coastal patrol boats and two Coast Guard ships.
The U.S. Navy statement said, “The IRGCN’s dangerous and provocative actions increased the risk of miscalculation and collision… and were not in accordance with the obligation under international law to act with due regard for the safety of other vessels in the area.”
The Iranians have since released a video on April 19 that showed the IRGCN warning off a flotilla of U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf as they tried to approach the Iranian territorial waters. Following the Iranian warning, the U.S. ships apparently moved away.
Such incidents are not uncommon and the two sides know how to de-escalate. Trump had no reason to meddle. He must be really out of his mind to kickstart a military conflict in the Middle East over such incidents at this point when the U.S.’s Gulf allies are preoccupied with COVID-19.
In fact, the specter of an ever-widening spread of the coronavirus among American sailors haunts the U.S. Navy too. The U.S. aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt is detained in the Pacific Island of Guam, its crew was quarantined after hundreds of its sailors tested positive.
Three other aircraft carriers, the Nimitz, the Ronald Reagan, and the Carl Vinson, are also being docked in ports because of sailors testing positive, while a fourth, the Truman, is being kept at sea for fear that its crew will become infected if it comes into port.
A former Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who held the post from 2009 to 2017, said, “I think what they need to do is bring every ship in… Offload most of the crew… leave a very skeletal force on board, sanitize the ship, quarantine people for two weeks, make sure nobody’s got COVID.” After that, he added, crews would have to be kept on the ships indefinitely until the pandemic is mitigated.
Arguably, Iran is not spoiling for a fight, either, as it emerges out of the pandemic. The struggle took a heavy toll; over 6,000 people died. In reality, what unnerves Washington is that Iran weathered the storm despite the U.S.’s “maximum pressure” approach.
The Trump administration even obstructed an Iranian request for a $5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to fight COVID-19, although Iran was the regional epicenter of the pandemic and dozens of frontline health workers and health care professionals died due to non-availability of personal protective equipment, and shortages of medicines and medical devices, including respirators.
The UN, the European Union, Russia, and China have called on the U.S. to ease sanctions. Even within the U.S., Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden joined members of Congress in urging the Trump administration to suspend sanctions on Iran. But all that fell on a stony heart. The Secretary of State Mike Pompeo kept advancing the ridiculous argument that Iran will divert IMF funds away from coronavirus relief and toward weapons of mass destruction programs.
Thus, the Trump administration watched with shock and awe when on April 22, a three-stage Qased rocket lifted off from the Markazi Desert in central Iran and successfully delivered a military reconnaissance satellite to orbit 425 km above earth’s surface. By doing so, Iran joined an elite club of superpowers with the capability to launch a military satellite using combined fuel in satellite carriers.
The Commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Major General Hossein Salami said, “Today, we can visualize the world from space, and this means extending the strategic intelligence of the powerful defense force, the IRGC.” All parts of the satellite, including the carrier and satellite, have been produced by the Iranian scientists and the message behind this important achievement is that sanctions are not an obstacle in the way of Iran’s progress.
Clearly, Trump has run out of options. Looking back, he made a ghastly mistake to order the murder of the Quds Force commander General Qassem Soleimani in January. The months since the incident took place go to show that Trump’s decision turned out to be a strategic blunder.
Soleimani’s murder has not exactly strengthened Trump’s prospects in the presidential election in November; it has not weakened Iran’s resolve in leading the “axis of resistance” in Syria and Iraq; but, it has weakened the U.S.’s standing in Iraq. Most importantly, Iran’s attitude toward the Trump administration has hardened.
Iranian diplomacy, which was low key in the last couple of months, has shifted gear as the country emerges out of the COVID-19 crisis. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif paid a visit to Damascus on April 20; Soleimani’s successor Esmail Ghaani was in Baghdad. During his meeting with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, Zarif said that Iran’s “path in support of the resistance” remains unwavering.
Meanwhile, Tehran has switched to a proactive policy toward Afghanistan. Tehran’s key interlocutor and veteran Afghan hand, Mohammad Ebrahim Taherian visited Kabul on April 20. Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Seyed Abbas Mousavi on this occasion said in Tehran:
“Iran’s efforts are independent and within the framework of the interests of the Afghan government and nation. We hope that our efforts would yield results, an inclusive government would be formed in Afghanistan, stability and calm would return to Afghanistan, and then intra-Afghan talks would be held.”
Tehran so far allowed a free hand to Washington but is now stepping in to try to consolidate the forces of Afghan nationalism who are incensed over the U.S.’s prescriptive approach. From April 12 to April 15, Zarif held consultations regarding Afghanistan with his counterparts in Kabul, Ankara, Beijing, New Delhi, Moscow, and Doha.
Tehran is determined to challenge Washington’s self-appointed role to navigate an Afghan settlement. The eviction of U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan has become top priority in Tehran’s regional strategies.
M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.