The president issued his directions via tweet.
President Donald Trump abruptly tweeted early today that he has directed the Navy to fire upon Iranian “gunboats” that “harass” U.S. ships at sea in a new sign of heightened tensions between Washington and Tehran.
“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 tweeted.
New guidance directing the Navy to fire upon Iranian vessels that “harass” U.S. ships would be a significant change to commanders’ rules of engagement in the theater, one former defense official said. Commanders can respond only to a direct threat, for instance, if a vessel fires at a U.S. ship.
“The U.S. Navy has clear rules of engagement issued by the chain of command and reviewed to ensure they are consistent with all applicable laws of the sea and armed conflict,” said Michael Mulroy, who served as the Pentagon’s Middle East policy chief until December. “Any Iranian actions that directly threatens our naval vessels and their crew will be dealt with based on those rules of engagement.”
Mulroy added that the United States has not defined harassment as a “direct threat.” Otherwise, “we would be shooting at a lot of Russian planes,” he noted, referring to regular incidents of Russian jets buzzing U.S. aircraft.
Retired Vice Adm. John Miller, former commander of U.S. 5th Fleet, said the president’s tweet was likely designed to send a message to Iran and should not change existing rules of engagement for Navy ships defending themselves in the Gulf.
“Navy commanders are more than capable of understanding when the president says something, that’s meant for an outside audience as opposed to direction to them,” Miller told POLITICO. “It’s the president’s way, which isn’t always as smooth as we’d like it to be, of telling Iran ‘hey, stay away from our ships.”
Former Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said the tweet itself likely does not change the rules of engagement because the Pentagon requires formal orders rather than “orders from Tweets.” He posited that the president is “trying to distract from Covid-19.”
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