This photo obtained from the US Navy on April 15, 2020, shows Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) vessels…
FILE - This photo obtained from the U.S. Navy on April 15, 2020, shows Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy vessels conducting what the U.S. said were unsafe actions against U.S. military ships, in international waters of the Persian Gulf.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s message to Iran should be “crystal clear,” top defense officials said Wednesday, defending the president’s latest social media missive to the government in Tehran.

Trump early Wednesday tweeted that he had instructed the U.S. Navy to “shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea.”

The tweet appeared to be a direct response to an incident last week, when several Iranian gunboats harassed U.S. ships, with some of the Iranian boats coming within 10 meters of the U.S. vessels in the Persian Gulf.

“I like that the president warned an adversary,” General John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,  told reporters, adding there was “no doubt what that means.”

“If you cross that line, we know what that line is and we will respond,” he said. “We will come and we will come large, so don’t go down that path.”

But Hyten and Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist also said that Trump’s tweet, while a useful reminder to Iran, did not change the Navy’s standing orders regarding the use of lethal force in self-defense.

US warning

The tweet and the Pentagon’s response came as U.S. officials warned Iran, as well as other U.S. adversaries that have become increasingly aggressive, against using the coronavirus pandemic to test U.S. resolve.

Iran has denied such allegations, insisting in recent days that its naval forces were merely conducting drills last week when they faced “unprofessional and provocative actions” from U.S. warships.

Still, U.S. officials argue that last week’s incident at sea is just part of a larger, ongoing pattern of Iranian behavior that is risking further conflict and instability in the Middle East.

That pattern, they say, includes Wednesday’s launch of what Iran said was a military satellite into orbit.

“The IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps], a designated terrorist organization, launched a missile today,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday, saying the move clearly violated U.N. Security Council resolutions.

“Iran needs to be held accountable for what they’ve done,” Pompeo said.

He also said U.S. officials have been told to “take whatever action is necessary to make sure you can defend and keep our people safe.”

The U.S. has objected to Iran’s satellite program, maintaining it is being used to develop ballistic missiles that could be armed with nuclear warheads.

Still assessing

U.S. military officials Wednesday declined to say whether the Iranian satellite launch had been successful, saying an assessment was in progress.

But they said the threat was unambiguous.

“It went a very long way, which means it has the ability once again to threaten their neighbors, our allies,” Hyten said.

Iran has insisted its nuclear program is only for civilian purposes.

VOA's Nike Ching contributed to this report.

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