Back in 2016, the head of U.S. Central Command stood on the deck of the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ship New Orleans tranisting the Strait of Hormuz and watched several Iranian naval vessels approach.
The Iranian vessels closed to within 500 yards, and while they largely acted in a safe and professional manner, now-retired Army Gen. Joseph Votel said the encounter showed the perilous nature of even those encounters.
“What concerns me is that people don’t always have a lot of time to deal with those interactions,” Votel told me at the time on the ship. “What we have learned here today is it is measured in minutes.”
Fast forward to this week. After 11 Islamic Republican Guard Corps navy vessels acted in a dangerous manner, at times even crossing in front of the bows of U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf, President Donald Trump tweeted that “I have instructed the United States Navy to shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea.”
I asked Votel what he thought about the tweet and how those currently in the Pentagon chain of command might react.
“My interpretation is that this is the unique way that our President communicates to the American People and the international audience,” he said in an email message. “In my opinion, Tweets are not a good way to convey military orders. Our military organizations look for official instructions that guide our operations — those come through more established processes.”
Votel said that if he were still in uniform, he would “be paying attention to the specific instructions that were coming through the DoD chain of command."
“Actions in these areas are guided by the Law of Armed Conflict; Rules of Engagement; and the authorities delegated to Combatant Commanders by DoD Execution Orders (EXORDs),” he said. “The EXORDs are the official way we communicate orders and instructions.”
Having been retired for a little more than a year now, Votel said he has “no insight into what may be taking place in this sphere right now.” But, “as you experienced while traveling with me — our Naval forces are quite adept at dealing with these situations and have well-developed and practiced procedures that they employ. I remain very confident in their ability to continue to do so. Likewise — we have lots of tools to deal with this.”
The call to action in Trump’s tweet — “if they harass our ships at sea” — is vague. In addition, ship commanders are already empowered to act if they perceive a threat.
When asked about that, Votel said he was “not sure I can evaluate whether ‘harass’ is enough of a threat to cause a kinetic response — the commanders of our ships have much better ways of identifying and classifying threats.”
As the CENTCOM commander, Votel spent a good chunk of his time dealing with threats in the region posed by Iran. But he said he is “not exactly sure what the IRCG/Islamic Government’s objective is" with these dangerous encounters.
He said he does not believe they are independent actions by a rogue IRGC, but instead actions designed to test red lines and provoke overreaction.
They are “probably just hoping to be provocative and perhaps cause an over-reaction from our side,” he said. “As I commented on while in uniform and dealing with similar situations — professional maritime forces do not operate this way. This lack of professionalism and unsafe activity is what we come to expect from these forces obviously commanded by rogue leadership at some level.”
Will it lead to armed conflict?
“I certainly hope this does not lead to kinetic action,” he said. “I don’t think that supports our overall objectives and strategy. Political and international pressure is a better way dealing with this.”
Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.