Top Pentagon leaders Wednesday called President Trump’s tweet instructing the United States Navy to shoot down and destroy “any and all Iranian gunboats” if they harassed its ships “an important warning” and “perfect.”

“The president issued an important warning to the Iranians. What he was emphasizing is all of our ships retain the right of self-defense, and people needed to be very careful in their interactions to understand the inherent right of self-defense,” said Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist.

The Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force Gen. John Hyten, added that every U.S. ship that deploys into harm’s way has the inherent right of self-defense.

“If we see hostile intent, we have the right to respond up to and including lethal force and, if it happens in the Gulf, if it happens anyway, we will respond with overwhelming lethal force, if necessary, to defend ourselves, and it’s really that simple,” Hyten said.

Trump tweeted Wednesday morning: “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 have instructed the United States Navy to shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea.

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 22, 2020

His tweet came after Iranian ships last week harassed U.S. ships conducting exercises in the Arabian Sea, which Iran considers its backyard but which the U.S. is committed to keeping open for international shipping and commerce.

The Navy posted video of the encounters on its Twitter account:

#ICYMI: Iranian #IRGCN vessels with weapons manned harassed #USSLewisBPuller (ESB 3) while operating in international waters in the North Arabian Gulf. U.S. crews took actions deemed appropriate to avoid a collision.

Learn more about the #USNavy‘s ESB: https://t.co/nhstyAIAOW pic.twitter.com/NBv13TRCSG

— U.S. Navy (@USNavy) April 16, 2020

Asked if Trump’s tweet was an “order,” Norquist and Hyten called it a warning to Iran.

“The president is describing and responding to poor behavior on behalf of the Iranians,” Norquist said. “So I think it was very useful thing that he put out, and I think it’s an important thing for people, other people, to understand and take very seriously.”

Hyten added:

I like that the president warned an adversary. That’s what he’s doing. He’s providing a warning. If you want to go  down that path, we will, and we will come large, so don’t go down that path. That is what he’s saying. He’s saying that in clear uncertain terms. We understand that direction and every commander that has deployed has the validity to execute that.

Asked if U.S. sailors could now take “lethal action” against harassment, Hyten said, “We as the military know how to apply that clear direction from the commander-in-chief into lawful orders that we execute.” He continued:

If you come across and you are in a safe distance and you’re waiting, that’s one thing. If you have a gun and point it at me, that’s another thing. We know exactly what that means. So if you cross that line, we know what that line is and we will respond. We don’t need any more direction in order to do that. I think the president’s message was crystal clear and we don’t need any more actions.

Hyten called it a “perfect” message to Iran:

I go back to the what the president says sends a great message to Iran. That’s perfect. We know how to translate that into our rules of engagement. We don’t talk about rules of engagement in public. But they’re based on the inherent right to self-defense. They’re based on hostile intent and hostile act. That’s all we need in order to take the right action.

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