The US has barred American-registered aircraft from flying over Iranian-administered airspace in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman over the Revolutionary Guard shooting down a US military surveillance drone, affecting a region crucial to global air travel.
The Federal Aviation Administration warned of a "potential for miscalculation or misidentification" in the region after an Iranian surface-to-air missile on Thursday brought down a US Navy RQ-4A Global Hawk, an unmanned aircraft with a wingspan larger than a Boeing 737 jetliner and costing more than US$100 million ($152m). The US said it made plans for limited strikes on Iran in response, but then called them off.
The FAA previously warned of a risk in the region, but yesterday's warning threw into stark relief a danger both it and analysts warned was real after the shooting down of a Malaysian Airlines flight over Ukraine in 2014. That could further imperil the bottom lines of Gulf long-haul carriers, which already have faced challenges under the Trump Administration.
"The threat of a civil aircraft shoot-down in southern Iran is real," warned Opsgroup, a company that provides guidance to global airlines.
The FAA made a similar warning in May to commercial airliners of the possibility of Iranian anti-aircraft gunners mistaking them for military aircraft, something dismissed by Tehran some 30 years after the US Navy shot down an Iranian passenger jet.
Iran had no immediate reaction to the US announcement.
The FAA said its warning would affect the area of the Tehran Flight Information Region, without elaborating. The FAA's operations centre referred questions to its press office, which did not immediately respond to queries from the Associated Press. However, that likely only extends some 20km off of the Iranian coast, aviation experts said.
There are "heightened military activities and increased political tensions in the region, which present an inadvertent risk to US civil aviation operations and potential for miscalculation or misidentification", the FAA said. "The risk to US civil aviation is demonstrated by the Iranian surface-to-air missile shoot-down of a US unmanned aircraft system on 19 June 2019 while it was operating in the vicinity of civil air routes above the Gulf of Oman."
The Persian Gulf is home to some of the world's top long-haul carriers, who already have been battered by Trump's travel bans targeting a group of predominantly Muslim countries, as well as an earlier ban on laptops in aeroplane cabins for Mideast carriers. The major carriers, Etihad, Emirates and Qatar Airways, as well as low-cost carriers, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Iran said the drone "violated" its territorial airspace, while the US called the missile fire "an unprovoked attack" in international airspace over the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf. Opsgroup said the Iranian weapons system that shot down the drone was comparable to the Russian Buk system used in 2014 Malaysian Airlines shootdown in Ukraine.
"Any error in that system could cause it to find another target nearby — another reason not to be anywhere near this part of the Straits of Hormuz," Opsgroup said.
President Donald Trump initially tweeted that "Iran made a very big mistake!" He later appeared to play down the incident, telling reporters in the Oval Office that he had a feeling "a general or somebody" being "loose and stupid" made a mistake in shooting down the drone.
Meanwhile, anti-war protesters fearing their country could be heading towards another conflict gathered outside the White House.
A US official said the military made preparations for limited strikes on Iran in retaliation for the downing of the surveillance drone, but approval was abruptly withdrawn before the attacks were launched.
The official, who was not authorised to discuss the operation publicly, said the targets would have included radars and missile batteries.
The official said 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.
Trump, who has said he wants to avoid war and negotiate with Iran over its nuclear ambitions, cast the shootdown as "a new wrinkle ... a new fly in the ointment". Yet he also said "this country will not stand for it, that I can tell you".
He said the American drone was unarmed and unmanned and "clearly over international waters". It would have "made a big, big difference" if someone had been inside, he said.
But fears of open conflict shadowed much of the discourse in Washington. As the day wore on, Trump summoned his top national security advisers and congressional leaders to the White House for an hour-long briefing in the Situation Room. Attendees 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'll 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 lawmakers insisted the White House must consult with Congress before taking any actions.
The New York Times reported that Trump had approved the strikes, but then called them off. The newspaper cited anonymous senior administration officials.
The White House declined requests for information about whether Trump changed his mind.
The incident immediately heightened the crisis already gripping the wider region, which is rooted in Trump withdrawing the US a year ago from Iran's 2015 nuclear deal and imposing crippling new sanctions on Tehran. Recently, Iran quadrupled its production of low-enriched uranium to be on pace to break one of the deal's terms by next week while threatening to raise enrichment closer to weapons-grade levels on July 7 if Europe doesn't offer it a new deal.
Citing unspecified Iranian threats, the US has sent an aircraft carrier to the Middle East and deployed additional troops alongside the tens of thousands already there. All this has raised fears that a miscalculation or further rise in tensions could push the US and Iran into an open conflict, 40 years after Tehran's Islamic Revolution.
"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 on Thursday.