A tweet by US 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, he is resorting to distractions to turn attention away from his incompetence in tackling the Covid-19 crisis in the United States.
A Time report while referring to the tweet said, “The White House had no immediate comment. The US 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 was 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 [the] coronavirus.”
Trump was ostensibly reacting to an allegation by the US Navy on April 15 that 11 Iranian vessels had “repeatedly conducted dangerous and harassing approaches against multiple US 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 US 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 US invasion – the Paul Hamilton, a guided-missile destroyer, two coastal patrol boats and two Coast Guard ships.
The US 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 then released a video on April 19 that showed the IRGCN warning off a flotilla of US warships in the Persian Gulf as they tried to approach Iranian territorial waters. After the Iranian warning, the US 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 United States’ Arab Gulf allies are preoccupied with Covid-19.
In fact, the specter of an ever-widening spread of the coronavirus among American sailors haunts the US Navy too. The US 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, have also been 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.
Former Navy secretary Ray Mabus, who held the post from 2009 to 2017, said last month, “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 from the pandemic. The struggle took a heavy toll; more than 6,000 people died. In reality, what unnerves Washington is that Iran weathered the storm despite the United States’ “maximum pressure” approach.
The Trump administration even obstructed an Iranian request for a US$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 because of non-availability of personal protective equipment, and shortages of medicines and medical devices, including respirators.
The United Nations, the European Union, Russia and China have called on the US to ease sanctions. Even within the US, Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden joined members of Congress in urging the Trump administration to suspend sanctions on Iran. But all that fell on a stony heart. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo kept advancing the argument that Iran would 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 kilometers 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 system, including the carrier and satellite, were produced by the Iranian scientists, and the message behind this important achievement is that sanctions are not an obstacle to 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 Qasem 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 for 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 United States’ standing in Iraq. Most important, 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 from 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” remained unwavering.
Meanwhile, Iran has switched to a proactive policy toward Afghanistan. Tehran’s key interlocutor and veteran Afghan hand, Mohammad Ebrahim Taherian, visited Kabul on April 20. Iranian 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 has 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 United States’ 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 US presence in Iraq and Afghanistan has become top priority in Iran’s regional strategies.
MK Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.