Iran Rebuffs Trump's Threat To 'Officially End' Them Amid Rocket Attack and U.S. Navy Exercises

Both countries insist they want to avoid an outright conflict as they accuse each other of inflaming the situation.

USN

Iranian officials have responded dismissively to U.S. President Donald Trump's threat to bring about "the official end of Iran," though there are now unconfirmed reports that the country may be repositioning air defense assets to guard against potential American strikes. 

Trump's fiery Tweet came in response to a lone rocket that struck the Green Zone in Iraq's capital Baghdad on May 19, 2019. It also followed the U.S. Navy's revelation that the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge, had moved out of the Persian Gulf and into the Arabian Sea to conduct a variety of exercises with the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and its associated carrier strike group. Information about the actual intelligence that spurred this latest spike in U.S.-Iran tensions – which prompted the deployment of various American naval, air, and ground forces – remains limited and what details are available continue to be the subject of intense debate within the U.S. government and between it and many of its major allies.

The rocket that flew into the sprawling Green Zone hit near Iraq's Monument of the Unknown Soldier, which is situated around a third of a mile from the perimeter of the U.S. Embassy compound and approximately a mile from the Embassy itself. Iraqi officials said the weapon caused no significant damage and that there were no casualties.

No group has officially claimed responsibility for the incident, but Iraqi military spokesman Brigadier General Yahya Rasoul told reporters that initial evidence suggested the rocket had come from East Baghdad, which is home to known Iranian-supported Shi'ite militias. 

For two weeks now, U.S.-Iran tensions have been at a recent high after the U.S. government deployed B-52 bombers to the Middle East and expedited the arrival of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and its associated carrier strike group in the Persian Gulf following supposed intelligence that Iranian forces and their proxies were moving into position to potentially launch attacks on U.S. interests in the region. Other additional naval, air, and ground forces have since arrived, as well.

"If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran," Trump wrote in his Tweet. "Never threaten the United States again!"

On May 20, 2019, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif took to Twitter to issue a rebuttal. "Goaded by #B_Team, @realdonaldTrump hopes to achieve what Alexander [the Great], Genghis [Khan] & other aggressors failed to do," he wrote, making a reference to hawkish National Security Advisor John Bolton, who has been at the forefront of the recent accusations against Iran.

"Iranians have stood tall for millennia while aggressors all gone. #EconomicTerrorism & genocidal taunts won't 'end Iran'." Zarif continued, referring to growing U.S. sanctions against the Iranian government. "#NeverThreatenAnIranian. Try respect—it works!"

Despite Zarif's general attitude of defiance, there have also been unconfirmed reports that Iran may be repositioning various surface-to-air missile systems to be better placed to respond to potential American strikes. Video footage appeared on social media on May 20, 2019, showing components of Iran's long-range, Russian-made S-300PMU-2 surface-to-air missile systems on the move. These clips are undated, but there are reports that the movements they show preceded Trump's new threat.

Before the rocket attack in Iraq on May 19, 2019, the U.S. Navy had also announced that the Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and the USS Kearsarge had been training together in the Middle East. “The exercises and training we are doing with Amphibious Squadron Six, the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit and USS Kearsarge are aimed towards increasing our lethality and agility to respond to threats, and deterring destabilizing actions in this important region,” U.S. Navy Rear Admiral John Wade, the commander of Carrier Strike Group 12, said in a statement.

This was a significant show of force, but it notably occurred in the Arabian Sea, rather than in the Persian Gulf. This allows the ships to have nearly the same presence in the region and maintain close proximity to the contentious Strait of Hormuz, but without the risk of getting trapped in the Persian Gulf during an actual crisis. Iran has repeatedly threatened to blockade this strategic chokepoint over the years, which it could seek to do with a mix ballistic missiles, anti-ship cruise missiles, naval mines, swarming boat attacks, unmanned aerial vehicles

Both Iran and the United States continue to insist publicly that they are not seeking war with each other. But there is are still concerns about the increasing risks of miscalculations and misinterpretations of certain military movements and other activities.

It remains unclear whether or not the rocket strike on the Green Zone itself was actually part of any larger coordinated effort on the part of Iran or its proxies, or is just business as usual. The heavily fortified area within Baghdad was subjected to repeated rocket and other attacks throughout the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq, which officially ended in 2011, but has been the target of sporadic indirect weapons fire since then, as well. 

Most recently, three mortar bombs rocked the Green Zone in September 2018 and the U.S. government also blamed that attack, which also caused no casualties, on Iranian-backed militias. Still, in December 2018, Iraqi authorities judged that the security situation had improved to the point where the Green Zone could become open to the public again for the first time in 15 years. 

The potential for increased attacks on the Green Zone from Iranian-linked Iraq militias was reportedly the reason why U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rushed to Iraq on May 7, 2019, according to Reuters, citing unnamed Iraqi officials. Just over a week later, the State Department ordered all non-essential personnel to leave the country, citing the increased threat from Iran and its proxies. 

"We take this incident very seriously," a State Department official told Reuters. "We will hold Iran responsible if any such attacks are conducted by its proxy militia forces or elements of such forces, and will respond to Iran accordingly."

But a single rocket landing in the Green Zone almost a week later does not seem to match U.S. government claims that the threats were both "imminent" and aimed at causing "mass casualties." As time goes on, without any major surge in attacks on American interests, or those of its allies, the assertion that there is an immediate increased risk of Iranian or Iranian-supported attacks can only become more questionable.

As always, this is not to say that Iran hasn't targeted U.S. military personnel or other American nationals over the years or that it doesn't present real threats to American allies in the Middle East. But there continues to be an equally real debate over whether the recent intelligence the U.S. government received two weeks ago indicates an actual increased threat warranting responses that could provoke a serious conflict with Iran, intentionally or not.

There remains only limited information about the scope and nature of the purported threats. These reportedly included Iranian personnel loading unspecified missiles onto smaller fishing boats, known locally as dhows, though it remains unclear whether or not this indicated preparations for attacks using the cover of nominally civilian vessels or was part of some other activity. Iran has been actively engaged in the smuggling of such weapons to its proxies, particularly Houthi rebels in Yemen. The U.S. intelligence community has reportedly declassified an image of one of these boats, but has not yet released it to the public for unknown reasons.

The U.S. government has also blamed Iran or Iranian-backed groups for a still-murky attack on four oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on May 13, 2019, but has yet to release evidence or any other information on how it arrived at this conclusion. On May 17, 2019, Reuters reported that the Norwegian Shipowners’ Mutual War Risks Insurance Association, also known by its Norwegian acronym DNK, had also determined that it was "highly likely" that Iran or its Houthi allies had been responsible for these attacks, which involved a mothership off-shore launching underwater drones. One of the damaged ships was the Norwegian-flagged M/V Andrea Victory, which is see in the video below with a hole in her rear hull.

DNK's conclusion was based on apparent similarities between the attacks on previous Houthi attacks using unmanned, explosive-laden boats. However, the insurance company also said that the attacks off of the UAE were the result of underwater drones, rather than ones sailing on the surface. There have also been previous reports that actual swimmers might have placed limpet mines on the ships' hulls. To date, no one has claimed responsibility for these attacks. 

However, it is important to note that the UAE, as well as Saudi Arabia, whose tankers both suffered damage during the attack, are engaged in an active conflict with the Houthis and have previously warned about the rebels seeking to threaten commercial shipping elsewhere in the Middle East. The Yemeni militants have recently stepped up attacks on Saudi Arabia, including reported drones strikes on that country's oil infrastructure and ballistic missile strikes on Saudi cities. But the Houthis have conducted similar operations in the past and it is hard to say conclusively that any of these incidents were part of a new, coordinated effort on the part of the Iranian government or merely coincided with the uptick in tensions between the United States and Iran.

DOD

A briefing slide regarding Houthi unmanned explosive-laden boats that the United States previously presented. The map shows reported locations of one of these drone boats that Saudi Arabia captured in 2016, showing it was present, at least for a time at various Iranian controlled islands in the Strait of Hormuz, just north of where the attack on the tankers occurred in May 2019.

"The kingdom of Saudi Arabia does not want war in the region and does not strive for that," Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir said on May 19, 2019. "But at the same time, if the other side chooses war, the kingdom will fight this with all force and determination and it will defend itself, its citizens and its interests."

Unfortunately, at a certain point, the present U.S.-Iran tensions may take on a life of their own, if they haven't already, regardless of the immediacy of the supposed threats that prompted the situation in the first place. For instance, many of the United States' European allies have called the initial intelligence into question and have said that they themselves have no indication of increased threats from Iran in the region.

However, the Dutch and the Germans have temporarily halted military training activities in Iraq, out of apparent concerns of getting caught up in a potential conflict between the United States and Iran. Spain similarly withdrew a frigate that had been sailing with the Lincoln Carrier Strike Group, ostensibly due to having not agreed to the change in the carrier's deployment plan and schedule, but reportedly due to similar fears of getting swept up in the increasing tensions. Perhaps most notably, the United Kingdom has increased its force protection posture across the Middle East last week in response to the developing situation, but did so shortly after British Army Major General Christopher Ghika, presently the second in command of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq and Syria fighting ISIS, said he was unaware of any increased risks form Iranian or Iranian-backed forces.

Members of Congress continue to debate the actual significance of the available intelligence and the Trump Administration is reportedly planning additional briefings for legislators who remain skeptical of the claims of newly imminent threats from Iran. Last week, a number of lawmakers accused the White House of deliberately keeping them in the dark about the exact nature of the situation in the Middle East. There have been bipartisan calls for greater clarity on reported threats, though some of the Republicans who have asked for more information, notably South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, say they now believe the Trump Administration's framing of the situation to be accurate.

Publicly available details on the original potential threats to American interests in the Middle East from Iran and its proxies, as well as the current risk assessment, remain scant. In the coming days, the Lincoln Carrier Strike Group could push through the Strait of Hormuz and into the Persian Gulf, which would be a real test of the stability of the situation. 

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com