Top U.S. military officials went to great pains on Wednesday to claim President Donald Trump was actually being helpful when he tweeted that he had ordered the Navy to sink Iranian gunboats.
Trump announced via Twitter that he was sick of the pesky Persians pushing the Navy around.
Military.com reporter Gina Harkins noted that Trump’s latest apparent fiat came after his favorite show “Fox & Friends” mentioned that Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy boats had recently engaged in their usual dangerous high speed antics near Navy and Coast Guard vessels in the Persian Gulf.
The vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told reporters later on Wednesday that the president had helped the U.S. military by providing a clear warning to the Iranians.
“What the president said sends a great message to Iran,” Air Force Gen. John Hyten said during a Pentagon news briefing. “That’s perfect. We know how to translate that into our rules of engagement. We don’t talk about rules of engagement, but they’re based on the inherent right of self to defend.”
Hyten stressed that all U.S. ships can respond to hostile actions with “overwhelming lethal force,” if necessary.
“I like that the president warned an adversary,” Hyten said. “He’s providing a warning: If you want to go down that path, we will come, and we will come large – so don’t go down that path.”
Reporters repeatedly asked Hyten and Defense Secretary David L. Norquist on Wednesday whether the president had ordered the U.S. military to change its procedures for dealing with Iranian gunboats.
Their non-answers indicated the Pentagon has not received any new orders from Trump.
“The president issued warning to the Iranians,” Norquist said. “What he was emphasizing is all of our ships retain the right of self-defense and people need to be very careful in their interactions to understand the inherent right of self-defense.”
A retired Navy admiral said Trump’s tweet was likely a political threat rather than actual orders to the U.S. military.
Commanding officers understand that changes to the rules of engagement will come from their superiors, not a tweet, said the retired admiral, who was not authorized to speak publicly.
“Even if I’m wrong about that … there’s not enough detail in that tweet, there’s not enough context to offer a commanding officer the kind of richness of detail that he or she is going to need to implement a change in ROE,” the retired admiral said.
Norquist also noted that the president’s tweet came in response to “poor behavior” from the Iranians.
“I think it was a very useful thing that he put out,” Norquist said. “I think it’s an important thing for other people to understand and take very seriously.”
Tensions between Iran and the United States have been extremely high since December, when Iranian-backed militia fighters stormed the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.
On Jan. 2, the U.S. military upped the ante by killing Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, then head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the commander of Kata'ib Hezbollah, a key Iranian proxy militia in Iraq.
Less than a week later, Iran launched ballistic missiles at U.S. troops in Iraq. More than 100 service members at AL-Asad Air Base were diagnosed with mild traumatic brain injury follow the attacks.
Then two U.S. service members were killed by a March 11 rocket attack on Camp Taji, Iraq, that the U.S. military blamed on Kata'ib Hezbollah. The tit-for-tat continued when the U.S. military struck five Kata'ib Hezbollah targets in Iraq, and three more service members were wounded in a second rocket attack on Camp Taji.
Thousands of paratroopers with the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, remain in the Middle East with no idea when they will be coming home as the United States and Iran remain at each other’s throats.
Hyten said the president’s language on how the U.S. military should respond to hostile acts was “crystal clear” to both the Iranians and American people. The U.S. military will turn Trump’s guidance into “lawful orders.”
While Hyten declined to say whether the Iranian boats’ most recent actions were serious enough to be met with lethal force, he said U.S. commanders know they cannot allow fast boats get into a position where they threaten their ships.
“If you come across and you’re at a safe distance and you’re waving, that’s one thing,” Hyten said. “But if you have a gun and you point it at me, that’s another thing. We know exactly what that means. So if you cross that line, and we know what that line is, we will respond.”