With coronavirus raging, are Trump and Iran moving toward confrontation again?

Iranians sew protective masks
Iranian women, members of a paramilitary organization, make masks and other protective items at a mosque in the capital, Tehran.
(Atta Kenare / AFP/Getty Images)

When it killed Iran’s top military figure, Qassem Suleimani, in January, the Trump administration declared it was “reestablishing deterrence” of what it called Tehran’s “malign behavior.”

But with Iran’s launch of a military satellite late Tuesday and reported harassment of U.S. naval ships in the Persian Gulf, neither deterrence nor diplomacy appears to have had much long-term success in reining in the Islamic Republic.

Now as both the U.S. and Iran struggle against the coronavirus pandemic, tensions are soaring again and could trigger new conflict.

On Wednesday, President Trump declared he had ordered the navy to “destroy” Iranian vessels that confront the United States.


“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. (Gunboats are boats and technically can’t be shot down. Gunships, on the other hand, are armed helicopters that could be shot down.)

Trump sent the tweet in the morning as newscasts were airing the first reports of Iran’s claims to have launched a military satellite. Footage showed the sleek white cylinder emblazoned with the Iranian flag shooting into orbit and out of sight, and noted the launch was the work of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a military branch that the U.S. recently designated as a terrorist organization — the first time that part of a sitting government was so labeled.

Iran claimed the launch was successful and will more than double its firing range to 3,100 miles — a major escalation, if true, of Tehran’s potential to attack other countries with ballistic missiles. It also revealed a heretofore secret weapons development program under direction of the guard corps.

“Today, we are looking at the Earth from the sky, and it is the beginning of the formation of a world power,” the semiofficial Iranian news agency Fars quoted Revolutionary Guard chief Hossein Salami as saying.

Last week, the Pentagon accused Iran of sending11 gunboats into international waters in the northern Persian Gulf that repeatedly approached several U.S. Navy vessels at high speed. The Navy said the forays were potentially dangerous and meant to harass. Trump was possibly responding to those incidents, although it was unclear.

“This is just another example of Iranian malign behavior,” Air Force Gen. John Hyten, vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a briefing Wednesday with reporters at the Pentagon.

“The president issued an important warning to the Iranians,” David Norquist, deputy secretary of Defense, said at the same news conference, calling Trump’s tweet a “very useful thing.” “What he was emphasizing is: All of our ships retain the right of self-defense,” Norquist said.

It was unclear whether Trump’s tweet would translate into any action on the high seas, or how quickly, and neither Hyten nor Norquist would shed light on that.

Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said in a briefing that the Revolutionary Guard’s missile launch “proves what we have been saying all along” about what he claims are Tehran’s nefarious designs. He did not directly address a question about whether U.S. power of deterrence was slipping.


“Every nation has an obligation to go to the United Nations and evaluate whether this missile launch was consistent” with Security Council resolutions that restrict Iranian weapons development, Pompeo said. “I don’t think it remotely is.”

Since withdrawing from the landmark international Iran nuclear deal in 2018, the Trump administration has steadily turned up pressure on the Islamic Republic with sanctions, travel bans and other punishments intended to isolate the government politically and diplomatically while crippling its economy.

Trump rejected the accord because he said it didn’t go far enough in stopping Iranian support for militant groups throughout the Middle East, including some, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, which the U.S. considers to be terrorist groups.

The sanctions, Iranian mismanagement and corruption and the plunge in oil prices have helped to destroy the country’s economy, and the abysmal response by Tehran to the coronavirus outbreak has further eroded leaders’ credibility.

Iran may now welcome a distraction from domestic woes by provoking the United States. Trump at the same time is facing public disapproval of his uneven handling of the pandemic.

Trump said in January that he ordered the killing of Suleimani after Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq fired rockets at an Iraqi base where American troops were stationed, killing one U.S. contractor. Initially he and others cited an “imminent attack” but later backed away from that motivation.

“President Trump and those of us in his national security team are reestablishing deterrence — real deterrence — against the Islamic Republic,” Pompeo said at the time.

The attacks in Iraq, however, have not let up. Two more American soldiers and a British service member were killed last month in one such barrage of rocket fire.

“U.S. options are limited,” said Daniel Byman, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy in Washington. “Iran has done such harassment in the past, and the U.S. Navy has a set of procedures to handle it — so making a big issue of it may be a surprise to Tehran.... The United States could sink some ships or take a similar military response, but this would achieve little.”

After the Suleimani killing, when many predicted Iranian retaliation might be fierce, the two countries instead quietly exchanged messages through third parties. While those back-channel communications appeared to stave off major escalation — Iran responded by firing more rockets at Americans at an Iraqi base, injuring many but killing no one — the indirect contacts did not lead to more substantive talks and appear to have fallen apart.

Separately, while Trump disparaged and dismissed the nuclear deal, Iran with European support initially attempted to stay within its requirements. After Suleimani’s killing, however, Iran said it would no longer abide by caps on uranium enrichment and stockpiling.

Ariane Tabatabai, an expert on Iran and security at Georgetown University’s foreign service school, said tensions between Washington and Tehran, far from easing, have been brewing. The pandemic, she said, will only make things worse.

“COVID-19 hasn’t slowed down the tensions between the two sides, it’s exacerbated them,” she said Wednesday on Twitter. “Neither side has showed a willingness to back down from its policy. The Trump [administration] introduced new sanctions even as Iran was grappling with the outbreak. Iran has resumed provoking actions.”

Jamal Abdi, president of the National Iranian American Council, an advocacy group that opposes war with Iran, said Trump was spoiling for a fight to further his troubled reelection campaign.

“There is no worse time for a disastrous war than in the middle of a pandemic,” Abdi said in a statement in response to Trump’s tweet. “It is self-evident that the ‘maximum pressure’ strategy against Iran has backfired.”