Kim Hjelmgaard and Tom Vanden Brook
A dozen Iranian speed boats brazenly swarm U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf. A Russian fighter jet buzzes a U.S. Navy surveillance plane flying over the Mediterranean Sea. North Korea fires a barrage of missiles launched from the air and ground.
All the incidents took place in mid-April. All were mounted by some of America's top adversaries. As coronavirus stalks the globe, sapping attention, budgets and government personnel at home and abroad, U.S. adversaries from Moscow to Pyongyang are flexing their muscles and testing U.S. resolve.
U.S. defense and national security officials said that although America remains on guard for potential threats as it works to overcome the coronavirus in a world of unpredictability, they have not detected extraordinary reasons to sound the alarm.
President Donald Trump sent out a warning Wednesday on Twitter: "I have instructed the United States Navy to shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea." He offered no additional context.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper told NBC's "Today" last week that "it's hard to say" whether the Iranian and Russian episodes reflected efforts to probe for U.S. vulnerability amid the COVID-19 pandemic that has sickened more than 826,000 Americans.
"Is the timing suspicious? Maybe. Internal dynamics can also explain these incidents."
On April 15, when Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy boats darted past U.S. warships conducting exercises in international waters in the northern Persian Gulf it was the latest example of routine Iranian harassment toward U.S. vessels that has intensified since the Trump administration exited a nuclear deal with Tehran.
That same day, a Russian SU-35 fighter jet came within 25 feet of a U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon surveillance plane flying in international airspace, putting the pilots and crew at risk, according to the U.S. Navy. Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters, NATO’s supreme allied commander in Europe, characterized the Russian pilot’s maneuver, including a pass in which he flew upside down, as unprofessional as opposed to incitement.
Tensions between Washington and Tehran flared anew 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, which is a major source of U.S. and international criticism. American officials said it was too early to know whether an operational Iranian satellite was successfully placed into orbit. Trump's top diplomat accused Iran of violating U.N. resolutions.
After Iran's announcement, 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 U.S. Navy reported that 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 nonlethal 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 traveling around our boats and having a good time,” Trump told reporters Wednesday evening at the White House. “We're not going to stand for it. ... They'll shoot them out of the water.”
Iran said the U.S. was to blame for last week's incident.
Conflict between Iran and the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. interests in the region.At the Pentagon on Wednesday, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. John Hyten, a former commander of American nuclear and space forces, welcomed Trump's tweet as a useful warning to Iran. He drew a parallel between last week's naval encounter in the Gulf and Wednesday's space launch, which said was “just another example of Iranian malign behavior.”