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Trump instructs the Navy to ‘shoot down and destroy’ Iranian gunboats that ‘harass’ US ships

The carrier Abraham Lincoln in the North Arabian Sea in 2019.
The carrier Abraham Lincoln in the North Arabian Sea in 2019.Bryan Denton/The New York Times

President Trump said Wednesday he has instructed the Navy to ‘‘shoot down and destroy’’ any Iranian gunboats that ‘‘harass’’ US ships following what US officials described as a provocative encounter last week in the Persian Gulf.

News of Trump’s order, shared in a morning tweet, came a week after the US military said 11 small vessels belonging to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps conducted ‘‘dangerous and harassing approaches’’ toward American ships, including the USS Lewis B. Puller, an expeditionary mobile base vessel, and the USS Paul Hamilton, a destroyer.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard later acknowledged it had a tense encounter with the US warships but alleged without evidence that US forces initiated the episode.

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‘‘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 said.

In a subsequent tweet, Trump suggested that his administration would adopt a tougher posture toward such incidents than the Obama administration had.

‘‘Sleepy Joe thought this was OK. Not me!’’ he said, referring to former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.

An Iranian armed forces spokesman said Trump’s focus was misplaced.

‘‘Today, instead of bullying others, the Americans should put all their efforts toward saving those members of their forces who are infected with coronavirus,’’ Abolfazl Shekarchi said, according to the Iranian Students’ News Agency.

The Revolutionary Guard also announced Wednesday that it has put a military satellite into orbit for the first time, a move that further exacerbated tensions with the United States.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters Wednesday that Iran must be held accountable and suggested the matter would be raised at the United Nations Security Council. In a news conference at the State Department, Pompeo said the launch belies Iran’s assertion that its space program is for commercial purposes.

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‘‘I think every nation has an obligation to go to the United Nations and evaluate whether this missile launch was consistent with that Security Council resolution,’’ he said, referring to the resolution that endorsed the 2015 nuclear agreement.

Referring to Trump’s tweet that Navy ships would ‘‘shoot down’’ Iranian gunboats that approach US ships, Pompeo said, ‘‘What he said this morning, and what I know he’s told all of us in leadership inside the government, is take whatever action is necessary to make sure that you can defend and keep our people safe.’’

The Trump administration has had a series of military clashes with Iran and affiliated groups over the past year. Iran downed a US drone and launched ballistic missiles at facilities housing US personnel in Iraq. The United States, meanwhile, conducted a drone strike in Baghdad in January that killed Major General Qasem Soleimani, a top Iranian commander, and has attacked Iranian-linked militias in Iraq.

Trump’s tweet marks the latest comment in which he has seemingly pressed the US military to respond more aggressively to Iran. But there is little to suggest that much will fundamentally change.

The Navy has long adhered to a policy of defending ships with a series of escalatory warnings that include attempts to communicate by radio, horn, and warning shots. Crews have the right to defend themselves but are expected not to open fire on harassing boats unless required.

A senior Navy spokesman, Rear Admiral Charles Brown, said Wednesday that he had nothing to add to the president’s tweet. The Navy follows international laws of armed conflict, Brown said. They include guidelines that dictate that a ship’s crew should not exceed the amount of force necessary to repel an attack.

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After a series of provocative actions at sea attributed to Iran, the United States and several partner nations last year established a new mission headquartered in Bahrain, Operation Sentinel, designed to prevent the seizure of commercial ships or attacks on them. Smaller ships like such as Tempest are expected to carry out ‘‘sentry’’ duties and respond to problems that arise, and larger vessels such as destroyers use their sensors to watch out for attacks in a ‘‘sentinel’’ role.

According to US officials, in last week’s episode, the American ships were carrying out operations with Army Apache helicopters in the northern Persian Gulf.

The Iranian vessels ‘‘repeatedly crossed the bows and sterns of the US vessels at extremely close range and high speeds, including multiple crossings of the Puller with a 50-yard closest point of approach and within 10 yards’’ of a Coast Guard ship’s bow, according to a military statement.

The US ships transmitted radio warnings and made warning sounds with no initial response. An hour later, the Iranian vessels responded and fell back, the military said.