Tensions between Washington and Tehran flared anew on Wednesday as Iran’s Revolutionary Guard conducted a space launch that could advance the country’s long-range missile program, and President Donald Trump threatened to “shoot down and destroy” any Iranian gunboats that harass Navy ships.
The launch was a first for the Guard, revealing what experts described as a secret military space program that could accelerate Iran’s ballistic missile development.
American officials said it was too early to know whether an operational Iranian satellite was successfully placed into orbit. Still, Mr Trump’s top diplomat accused Iran of violating UN resolutions.
After Iran’s announcement, Mr Trump wrote on Twitter, without citing any specific incident: “I have instructed the United States Navy to shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea.”
Last Wednesday, the US Navy reported 11 Guard naval gunboats had carried out “dangerous and harassing approaches” to American Navy and Coast Guard vessels in the Persian Gulf.
The Americans used a variety of non-lethal means to warn off the Iranian boats, and they eventually left.
Such encounters were relatively common several years ago but have been rare recently.
“We don’t want their gunboats surrounding our boats, and travelling around our boats and having a good time,” Mr Trump told reporters.
“We’re not going to stand for it … They’ll shoot them out of the water.”
Iran said the US was to blame for last week’s incident.
Conflict between Iran and the US escalated after the Trump administration withdrew from the international nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers in 2018 and reimposed crippling sanctions.
Last May, the US sent thousands more troops, including long-range bombers and an aircraft carrier, to the Middle East in response to what it called a growing threat of Iranian attacks on US interests in the region.
The tensions spiked when US forces killed Iran’s most powerful general, Qassem Soleimani, in January.
Iran responded with a ballistic missile attack on a base in western Iraq where US troops were present. No Americans were killed but more than 100 suffered mild traumatic brain injuries from the blasts.
At the Pentagon on Wednesday, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General John Hyten, welcomed Mr Trump’s tweet as a useful warning to Iran.
It's just more examples of Iranian malign behaviour and misbehaviour
He drew a parallel between last week’s naval encounter in the Gulf and Wednesday’s space launch, which he said was “just another example of Iranian malign behaviour.”
“And it goes right along with the harassment from the fastboats,” he said. “You put those two things together and it’s just more examples of Iranian malign behaviour and misbehaviour.”
Iran considers the heavy US military presence in the Middle East a threat to its security.
Mr Trump did not cite a specific Iranian provocation in his tweet or provide details.
Senior Pentagon officials gave no indication that Trump had directed a fundamental change in military policy on Iran.
“The president issued an important warning to the Iranians,” David Norquist, the deputy secretary of defence, said at a Pentagon news conference when asked about the tweet.
“What he was emphasising is, all of our ships retain the right of self-defence.”
Iran’s space launch has potentially larger implications for conflict with Iran. US officials believe it is intended to advance Iran’s development of intercontinental-range ballistic missiles that could threaten the US.
Using a mobile launcher at a new site, the Guard said it put a “Noor” or “Light” satellite into a low orbit circling the Earth.
Iranian state TV late Wednesday showed footage of what it said was the satellite, and said it had orbited the earth within 90 minutes. State TV said the satellite’s signals were being received.