Donald Trump has said the US was “cocked & loaded” to attack Iran after it downed a US drone on 20 June (the countries contest whether the drone was in international or Iranian airspace). But Trump allegedly cancelled the strikes 10 minutes before they were to be carried out after being told some 150 people could die.
He tweeted on Friday that the US was ready to “retaliate last night on 3 different sights [sic] when I asked, how many will die”.
He said a general told him 150 people, and he cancelled the strikes as “not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone”.
The swift reversal was a stark reminder of the serious risk of military conflict between US and Iranian forces as the Trump administration combines a “maximum pressure” campaign of economic sanctions with a build-up of US forces in the region.
According to one official, the strikes were recommended by the Pentagon and were among the options presented to senior administration officials.
It was unclear how far the preparations had gone but no shots were fired or missiles launched, the official said.
Behind the scenes
After the shooting down of the drone, Trump summoned his top national security advisers and congressional leaders to the White House for an hour-long briefing in the Situation Room.
Those attending included secretary of state Mike Pompeo, national security adviser John Bolton, CIA director Gina Haspel, joint chiefs chairman General Joseph Dunford, acting defence secretary Patrick Shanahan and army secretary Mark Esper, whom Trump has said he will nominate as Pentagon chief.
Pompeo and Bolton have advocated hardline policies against Iran, but Representative Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House intelligence committee, said “the president certainly was listening” when congressional leaders at the meeting urged him to be cautious and not escalate the already tense situation.
On Capitol Hill, leaders urged caution and some politicians insisted the White House must consult with Congress before taking any actions.
The Trump administration has been putting increasing economic pressure on Iran for more than a year.
It reinstated punishing sanctions following Mr Trump’s decision to pull the US out of an international agreement intended to limit Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for relief from earlier sanctions.
The other world powers who remain signed on to the nuclear deal have set a meeting to discuss the US withdrawal and Iran has announced plans to increase its uranium stockpile for June 28, a date far enough in the future to perhaps allow tensions to cool.
“Economic terrorism” and the potential of Washington ‘bumbling into a war’
On Thursday, Iran called the sanctions “economic terrorism”.
Citing Iranian threats, the US recently sent an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf region and deployed additional troops alongside the tens of thousands already there.
“We do not have any intention for war with any country, but we are fully ready for war,” Revolutionary Guard commander General Hossein Salami said in a televised address.
The paramilitary guard, which answers only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said it shot down the drone at 4.05am on Thursday when it entered Iranian airspace near the Kouhmobarak district in southern Iran’s Hormozgan province.
Taking issue with the US version of where the attack occurred, Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted that his country had retrieved sections of the military drone “in our territorial waters where it was shot down”.
He said: “We don’t seek war but will zealously defend our skies, land & waters.”
Air force Lt Gen Joseph Guastella, commander of US Central Command air forces in the region, disputed that contention, telling reporters that the aircraft was 21 miles from the nearest Iranian territory and flying at high altitude when struck by a surface-to-air missile.
The US military has not commented on the mission of the remotely piloted aircraft that can fly higher than 10 miles in altitude and stay in the air for more than 24 hours at a time.
Late on Thursday, the Federal Aviation Administration barred American-registered aircraft from flying over parts of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.
Democratic leaders in particular urged the president to work with US allies and stressed the need for caution to avoid any unintended escalation.
Senator Chuck Schumer said he told Trump that conflicts have a way of escalating and “we’re worried that he and the administration may bumble into a war”.
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