Trump’s threat to Iran has a hollow ring. It betrays angst.

Afghan President Asraf Ghani (C) received Iran’s special envoy Mohammad Ebrahim Taherian at the presidential palace, Kabul, April 20, 2020

A tweet by the US President Donald Trump on April 22 said, “I have instructed the United States Navy to shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea.” The AP report on it added, “The White House had no immediate comment. The U.S. Navy’s Bahrain-based 5th Fleet referred questions about the tweet to the Pentagon, and the Pentagon referred questions to the White House.” 

Trump is talking the language of war while indulging in politics by other means. Like his ban on immigration, Trump is resorting to distractions to turn attention away from his incompetence in tackling the Covid-19 crisis. 

Tehran is plainly dismissive. The spokesman for the Iranian Armed Forces Brigadier General Abolfazl Shekarchi said disdainfully, “Instead of bullying others today, Americans should put their efforts into saving their forces, who have contracted coronavirus.”

Trump was ostensibly reacting to an allegation by the US Navy on April 15 that eleven Iranian vessels had “repeatedly conducted dangerous and harassing approaches against multiple US naval ships operating in international waters.” Speedboats belonging to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) apparently came too close to a squadron of US warships sailing close to Iranian waters. 

These warships included the expeditionary mobile base vessel Lewis B. Puller—a ship designed to serve as a platform for a US invasion—the Paul Hamilton, a guided missile destroyer, two coastal patrol boats and two Coast Guard ships.

The US Navy statement said, “The IRGCN’s dangerous and provocative actions increased the risk of miscalculation and collision … and were not in accordance with the obligation under international law to act with due regard for the safety of other vessels in the area.” 

The Iranians have since released a video on April 19 which showed the IRGC Navy warning off a flotilla of US warships in the Persian Gulf as they tried to approach the Iranian territorial waters. Following the Iranian warning, the US ships apparently moved away. 

Such incidents are not uncommon and over the years, the two sides know how to de-escalate. Trump had no reason to butt in. He must be really out of his mind to kickstart a military conflict in the Middle East over such incidents at this point when the US’ Gulf allies are preoccupied with Covid-19. 

In fact, the spectre of an ever-widening spread of the coronavirus among American sailors haunts the US Navy too. The US aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt is detained in Guam, its crew quarantined following hundreds of its sailors testing positive. 

Three other aircraft carriers, the Nimitz, the Ronald Reagan and the Carl Vinson are also being held in port because of sailors testing positive, while a fourth, the Truman, is being kept at sea for fear that its crew will become infected if it comes into port. 

It’s an appalling situation. A former Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who held the post from 2009 to 2017, has said, “What I think they need to do is bring every ship in. Offload most of the crew … leave a very skeletal force on board, sanitise the ship, quarantine people for two weeks, make sure nobody’s got COVID.” After that, he added, crews would have to be kept on the ships indefinitely until the pandemic is mitigated.

Arguably, Iran is not spoiling for a fight, either, as it emerges out of the pandemic. The struggle took a heavy toll; over 5000 people died. In reality, what unnerves Washington is that Iran weathered the storm despite the US’ “maximum pressure” approach. 

The Trump administration even obstructed the processing by IMF of an Iranian request for a $5 billion loan to fight Covid-19, although Iran was the regional epicentre of the pandemic and dozens of front-line health workers and healthcare professionals died due to non-availability of personal protective equipment, and shortages of medicines and medical devices, including respirators. 

The UN, EU, Russia and China have called on the US to ease sanctions. Even within the US, Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden joined members of the Congress in urging the Trump administration to suspend sanctions on Iran. But all that fell on a stony heart. The Secretary of State Pompeo kept advancing the ridiculous argument that Iran will divert IMF funds away from coronavirus relief and towards weapons of mass destruction programmes. 

Thus, the Trump administration watched with shock and awe when on April 22, a two-stage Qassed rocket lifted off from the Markazi Desert in central Iran and successfully delivered a military reconnaissance satellite to orbit 425km above earth’s surface. By doing so, Iran joined an elite club of superpowers with the capability to launch a military satellite using combined fuel in satellite carriers. 

The Commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps Major General Hossein Salami said, “Today, we can see the world from space and this means expansion of the strategic intelligence and information of IRGC’s powerful defence force.” All parts of the satellite, including the carrier and satellite, have been produced by the Iranian scientists and the message behind this important achievement is that sanctions are not an obstacle on the way of Iran’s progress. 

Clearly, Trump has run out of options. Looking back, he made a ghastly mistake to order the murder of the Qud’s Force commander General Qassem Soleimani in January. The hundred days since show that Trump’s decision turns out to be a strategic blunder. 

Soleimani’s murder has not exactly strengthened Trump’s prospects in the presidential election in November; it has not weakened Iran’s resolve in leading the “axis of resistance” in Syria and Iraq; but, it has weakened the US’ standing in Iraq. Most important, Iran’s attitude toward the Trump administration has hardened. 

Iranian diplomacy which was on low key in the past couple of months has shifted gear as the country emerges out of the Covid-19 crisis. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif paid a visit to Damascus last week; Soleimani’s successor Esmail Ghaani was in Baghdad. At his meeting with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, Zarif said that Iran’s “path in support of the resistance” remains unwavering.

Meanwhile, Tehran has switched to a pro-active policy toward Afghanistan. Tehran’s key interlocutor and veteran Afghan hand,  Mohammad Ebrahim Taherian visited Kabul on April 20. Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Seyed Abbas Mousavi said in Tehran on the occasion, 

“Iran’s efforts are independent and within the framework of the interests of the Afghan government and nation. We hope that our efforts would yield results, an inclusive government would be formed in Afghanistan, stability and calm would return to Afghanistan, and then intra-Afghan talks would be held.” 

Tehran so far allowed a free hand to Washington but is now stepping in to try to consolidate the forces of Afghan nationalism who are incensed over the US’ prescriptive approach. During the past fortnight, Zarif held consultations regarding Afghanistan with his counterparts in Kabul, AnkaraBeijingNew Delhi, Moscow and Doha. 

Tehran is determined to challenge Washington’s self-appointed role to navigate an Afghan settlement. The eviction of US presence in Iraq and Afghanistan has become top priority in Tehran’s regional strategies.