SNAPSHOT: Tensions between Iran and the US escalate as Iran launches military satellite into orbit and Trump issues call to shoot Iranian boats if harassed
- Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) said on 22 April it had successfully launched a military satellite into orbit for the first time. The satellite, named Nur (Light), reached an orbit of 425km after being carried by a three-stage Qased launcher. The success of the launch, which took place from the Dasht-e Kavir desert in central Iran, has not been verified independently.
- On the same day, US President Donald Trump tweeted that he had instructed the US Navy to attack Iranian boats in the Gulf that ‘harass our ships at sea.’
- Trump’s call for the US Navy to fire on hostile Iranian boats comes after a series of incidents in the Gulf in the past week that have elevated tensions between Washington and Tehran.
- Washington accused Iran of sending 11 IRGC vessels to harass six US Navy and Coast Guard ships on 15 April while they were performing a military exercise. The boats reportedly crossed the bows and sterns of Navy ships at high speeds, at one point coming within about 9 metres. On 19 April, the IRGC confirmed the incident but accused the US of exaggerating what had happened. Tehran also said it had stepped up naval patrols in the Gulf in response to alleged US hostilities.
- Earlier on 14 April, a Hong Kong-flagged tanker was briefly detained while sailing in international waters through the Gulf of Oman. The vessel was approached by four skiffs carrying armed Iranian Coast Guard personnel and directed to Kooh Mobarak, Iran. It was quickly released with crew and vessel reported to be safe.
- Trump’s call marks a departure from current Navy rules of engagement protocols which stipulate that lethal force can only be used if American ships or personnel are put at risk. Examples include trying to ram the ship or placing explosives near its hull. Small Iranian boats often use the harassment tactic of blaring loudspeakers and weaving in a ship’s path, which would not be enough to warrant firepower under the Navy’s rules of engagement.
- It is worth noting that the tweet is not considered a military order, and the US Defense Department official said the Navy had not received any formal policy directive ordering it to change its criteria for opening fire on threatening boats. Therefore, it is likely that the tweet was intended more as rhetoric, possibly aimed at drawing attention away from the COVID-19 crisis at home and riling his conservative support base, than a policy change.
- Meanwhile, Iran’s launching of a military satellite into orbit is arguably the more significant incident. The United States has raised concerns about the satellite, saying long-range ballistic technology used to put satellites into orbit could also be used to launch nuclear warheads. Indeed, sending a satellite into orbit mimics some of the flight path of a nuclear warhead and is often considered to be a practice run.
- Washington says the launch violates a UN Security Council resolution, which calls upon on Iran not to ‘undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons’. Iran continues to insist it is not working on a nuclear weapon.
- Regardless, the launch marks a major advance for Tehran. Previous launches have failed and satellites have never deployed correctly, including an attempt in February this year. Significantly, Iran appears to have used a mobile launcher to get the Nur into orbit, which is harder to stop with a pre-emptive strike as it reduces warning time. Previous launch attempts have been made from fixed sites. Additionally, Iran had previously said its satellite launches were for commercial and not military use, and the most recent launch appears to change this narrative most certainly to the concern of both the US and Israel.
- Both incidents suggest that Iran and the US are increasing their hostile rhetoric and posturing which will reduce the likelihood of a thaw in relations in the longer term.
- Iran has been steadily applying pressure on US interests in the Middle East in response to Trump’s unilateral withdrawal in May 2018 from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or nuclear deal) and the re-imposition of sanctions. Since the US’s January assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the former IRGC-Quds Force commander, much of this effort has been focused on targeting US military and diplomatic forces in Iraq, with the aim of forcing their withdrawal. There has been an increase in incidents of pro-Iranian Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs) targeting US forces there, including a rocket attack on a military base north of Baghdad on 11 March that killed two US nationals and a British national. In response, the US withdrew some troops from some Iraqi military bases in line with a plan to consolidate its troops in two locations in Iraq.
- With the recent harassment of US Navy boats, it is likely that Iranian leaders are trying to shift the blame to the US and project power in the Gulf amid growing criticism at home over the poor response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the country’s worsening economic crisis. The launch of the satellite can also be positioned as a symbolic victory for Iran’s space programme; indeed, Iranian leadership have already made remarks suggesting Tehran is developing new technologies that give it great power at a regional, and soon global, level.
- Nonetheless, Iran has little interest in sparking an all-out direct conflict with the US due to the existential threat this would pose to its regime. The US is also unlikely to want to escalate into conflict with Iran given the domestic challenges at home and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Rather, Iran is likely to focus mainly on the activities of its proxy groups, including the staging of low-level asymmetric attacks mainly in Iraq and Syria in the coming months.