President Donald Trump ordered an attack on Iran on yesterday in retaliation for the downing of a surveillance drone in the Strait of Hormuz but called the operation off just before it was due to occur because it would have caused extensive casualties, he said today.
In a series of morning tweets, Trump said he called off strikes on three Iranian sites minutes before they were to be launched because he was informed of the likely loss of life among Iranians.
"We were cocked & loaded to retaliate last night on 3 different sights when I asked, how many will die," Trump tweeted. "150 people, sir, was the answer from a General. 10 minutes before the strike I stopped it."
Such a death toll was "not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone," Trump wrote, adding: "I am in no hurry, our Military is rebuilt, new, and ready to go, by far the best in the world. Sanctions are biting & more added last night. Iran can NEVER have Nuclear Weapons, not against the USA, and not against the WORLD!"
Iran said today the United States had "no justification" for a retaliatory strike and vowed to respond "firmly" to any U.S. military action.
Trump administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive national security decisions, said the president approved the strikes after Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps earlier in the day shot down a Navy RQ-4 Global Hawk operating off Iran's southern coast, a move Trump described as a "very big mistake."
But he later changed his mind, the officials said. The decision was first reported by the New York Times.
The commander of the Revolutionary Guard's aerospace division said today that Iran had sent "warnings" to the drone before shooting it down. In an interview with Iran's state-controlled broadcaster, Brig. Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh said a final warning was sent at 3:55am local time on Thursday.
"When it did not redirect its route and continued flying toward and into our territory, we had to shoot it at 4:05am," he said. "Our national security is a red line."
He also said that a US P-8 patrol aircraft, with 35 people on board, had accompanied the drone into Iranian airspace. His claim could not immediately be verified.
"We could have downed it, too," Hajizadeh said of the plane, the Fars News Agency reported. "But we did not do it."
A senior US defence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject, said today the Pentagon had Navy assets poised to strike in Iran if directed, including ships accompanying the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln. Those attacks could have included airstrikes with jets, or - more likely - Tomahawk cruise missiles, the official said.
Among the ships that could have been involved were the guided-missile cruiser USS Leyte Gulf and the destroyer USS Bainbridge, the official said. Both vessels can carry Tomahawk missiles.
The official said he could not say whether Iran considered shooting down a Navy P-8 Poseidon surveillance plane with a few dozen U.S. service members aboard before ultimately striking an unmanned RQ-4 over the Gulf of Oman. However, the official said, a P-8 was flying in the region that night.
Iranian state television today published images it said showed pieces of the drone recovered from the debris field. The photographs, which showed large fragments of what appeared to be an aircraft, could not be independently authenticated.
Iranian officials told the Reuters news agency today that Tehran received a message from Trump through Oman overnight warning that a US attack was imminent.
"Trump said he was against any war with Iran and wanted to talk to Tehran about various issues," Reuters quoted one official as saying. "He gave a short period of time to get our response." The official added that it was up to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to decide whether to respond.
Iran's permanent mission to the United Nations did not immediately reply to request for comment.
The Federal Aviation Administration yesterday barred US-registered aircraft from operating over the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman, because of an increase in military activities and political tensions that it said might "place commercial flights at risk."
Several US and international carriers said that they had either cancelled flights over Iranian airspace or were taking steps to avoid the Strait of Hormuz.
The aborted operation to strike Iran capped a day in which news of the drone's downing heaped fuel on already heightened fears that the United States and Iran were on a course toward a military conflict as each side blamed the other for the incident.
Tehran and Washington gave conflicting accounts of what occurred when the drone with an airliner's wingspan crashed into the sea. While Iran said the aircraft had entered its airspace, the US Central Command denied that assertion, characterising the incident as an "unprovoked attack" over one of the world's most important commercial waterways.
In remarks alongside visiting Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the White House, Trump condemned the shoot-down but also appeared to tamp down speculation that a counterstrike might be in the works, saying the drone may have been shot down without the knowledge of Iranian leaders.
"I'm not just talking about the country made a mistake. I'm talking about somebody under the command of that country made a mistake," Trump said at the White House. "I find it hard to believe it was intentional" on the part of Iran's top officials, the president said.
Trump was noncommittal about a US counterattack. "Let's see what happens," he said. "This is a new fly in the ointment - what happened, shooting down the drone - and this country will not stand for it."
The White House invited a bipartisan group of top congressional leaders to a meeting yesterday to discuss the situation.
Among those invited were Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and the chairmen and ranking minority party members of the House and Senate Intelligence and Armed Services committees.
"We had a good briefing," McConnell said, adding that he could confirm that an unmanned aerial vehicle "was fired on from Iranian soil and it was in international waters. And beyond that I think the administration is engaged in what I would call measured responses."
Schumer said he cautioned that "these conflicts have a way of escalating."
"The president may not intend to go to war here, but we're worried that he and the administration may bumble into a war," he said. "One of the best ways to avoid bumbling into war, a war that nobody wants, is to have a robust open debate and for Congress to have a real say. We learned that lesson in the run-up to Iraq in 2003."
After the White House meeting, Pelosi held a closed-door session with Democratic lawmakers to brief them on the developments.
"We know that the high-tension wires are up there, and we must do everything we can not to escalate the situation, but also to make sure that our personnel in the region are safe," she said.
The strike followed a number of recent incidents, including attacks on oil tankers, that American officials have depicted as part of an Iranian effort to hurt the United States and its allies in the region. The United States has continued its "maximum pressure" campaign against a country the Trump administration has identified as its main adversary in the Middle East.
Tehran has responded with defiance to the campaign, which was launched after Trump withdrew the United States from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and has included designating the Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist group and taking steps to cut off Iranian oil sales.
The European Union said officials from Germany, Britain, France, Russia, China and Iran would meet next week to discuss strategies to salvage the nuclear pact despite renewed US sanctions and Tehran's threat to exceed limits on its uranium stockpiles.
Saudi Arabia's deputy defense minister said on Twitter he met with Brian Hook, the State Department's special representative for Iran, in Riyadh "to explore the latest efforts to counter hostile Iranian acts."
The Revolutionary Guard's top commander, Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami, called the downing of the drone "a clear message to America."
"Our borders are Iran's red line, and we will react strongly against any aggression," Salami said in remarks carried by Iranian state television. "Iran is not seeking war with any country, but we are fully prepared to defend Iran."
Nearly a quarter of the world's traded oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz, which connects Middle East energy producers to markets around the globe.
Lt. Gen. Joseph Guastella, head of US air forces in the Middle East, told reporters at the Pentagon that the Global Hawk was flying at high altitude in the vicinity of recent tanker attacks and was not at any time any closer than 34km to the nearest point on Iran's coast.
Guastella said the aircraft did not leave international airspace and was brought down by a Republican Guard surface-to-air missile fired from an area close to Goruk, Iran.
"This dangerous and escalatory attack was irresponsible and occurred in the vicinity of established air corridors between Dubai, UAE, and Muscat, Oman, possibly endangering innocent civilians," he said. Guastella did not take questions, and the Pentagon did not make anyone else available to discuss the tensions.
The Global Hawk incident occurred the week after two tankers, one Japanese and one Norwegian, were attacked in the Gulf of Oman. The Trump administration has blamed Iran for both incidents, at least one of which is said to have been carried out by use of limpet mine similar to devices previously displayed at Iranian military parades. Iran has denied involvement, calling the accusation "a lie."
The tanker incidents were similar to an attack on a tanker off the United Arab Emirates in May. The US military also accused Iran of firing a modified SA-7 surface-to-air missile at an MQ-9 Reaper drone over the Gulf of Oman as it surveilled the attack on the Japanese ship.
Also this month, Centcom said Houthi rebels shot down an MQ-9 over Yemen using an SA-6 surface-to-air missile in an attack that "was enabled by Iranian assistance."
The latest incident came just days before acting defence secretary Patrick Shanahan was due to step down. Shanahan, who this week withdrew from his confirmation process after news media, including the Washington Post, published reports about past family strife, is handing responsibility for the military to Mark Esper, who now serves as Army secretary.
It is unclear how the turnover at the top of the Pentagon will affect an internal debate about how to respond to what officials say is an attempt to strike American interests. Some defence officials have voiced concerns that officials led by national security adviser John Bolton, who has publicly advocated regime change in Iran in the past, may be creating conditions in which war is inevitable.
Trump has previously authorised targeted strikes in the Middle East, including on government-controlled air bases in Syria. He was elected in 2016 promising to end American involvement in conflicts in the region.
At the same time, the Pentagon remains concerned about the potential for Iranian attacks on US military personnel, especially those stationed in Iraq. During a visit to Baghdad last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sought to relay a message for Iranian leaders that even one American death would result in a US counterattack.
Trump appeared to tamp down the likelihood of an immediate military response as he highlighted the fact that the Global Hawk was unmanned. "We had nobody in the drone," he said. "It would have made a big difference, let me tell you."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., tweeted, "When it comes to the Middle East, there are seldom good choices."
"But in some instances, failing to act can prove to be the most dangerous choice of all," he said.
A US official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said US naval assets were trying to recover pieces of the drone.
The strike on the RQ-4 is much more significant than the recent attacks on Reapers. Each Global Hawk, which has a wingspan of 40m, is worth more than US$100 million and is packed with sensors and able to fly at altitudes of more than 16km to observe broad areas for periods that can stretch longer than a day.
The Global Hawk downed was an older "demonstrator" model, according to another US official, that had been transferred from the Air Force to the Navy to carry out a mission known as Broad Area Maritime Surveillance. The Pentagon has since begun testing a newer cousin, the MQ-4C Triton. Neither version carries weapons.
According to a Revolutionary Guard statement, the US drone took off from a base in the "southern Persian Gulf" and was heading toward Iran's Chabahar port "in full secrecy, violating the rules of international aviation."
"While returning to the western Hormuz Strait's region, the drone violated Iran's airspace and engaged in information-gathering and spying," the statement said.
At its narrowest, the Strait of Hormuz is just 21 nautical miles wide, and ships passing through it must enter the territorial waters of Iran and Oman. Under the rule of the shah in 1959, Iran extended its territorial waters to 12 nautical miles and declared that it would recognise only "innocent passage" through the area, essentially excluding warships engaging in activities deemed hostile. Oman also claimed a 20km territorial limit in 1972 and later demanded that foreign warships obtain permission to pass through its waters.
The United States does not recognise any restrictions on transit through the strait.