The United States abruptly called off preparations for a military strike against Iran in retaliation for the downing of a U.S. surveillance drone, a U.S. official said.
The Trump administration offered no immediate public account of the thinking behind the last-minute halt in U.S. preparations for retaliation, amid sharply escalating tensions between the two countries. A U.S. official said the targets would have included radars and missile batteries.
President Donald Trump initially authorized the strikes, but then called them off.
The swift reversal was a reminder of the serious risk of military conflict between U.S. and Iranian forces as the Trump administration combines a “maximum pressure” campaign of economic sanctions with a buildup of American forces in the region. As tensions mounted in recent weeks, there have been growing fears that either side could make a dire miscalculation that led to war.
The U.S. military says that the drone Iran shot down was in international airspace over the Strait of Hormuz when it was engaged by anti-aircraft missile.
According to the U.S. official who spoke to The Associated Press, 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.
The military operation was reportedly called off around 7:30 p.m. Washington time, after Trump had spent most of Thursday discussing Iran strategy with top national security advisers and congressional leaders.
The downing of the U.S. drone — a huge, unmanned aircraft — over the Strait of Hormuz prompted accusations from the U.S. and Iran about who was the aggressor. Iran insisted the drone violated Iranian airspace; Washington said it had been flying over international waters.
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Trump’s initial comments on the attack were succinct. He declared in a tweet that “Iran made a very big mistake!” But he also suggested that shooting down the drone — which has a wingspan wider than a Boeing 737 — was a foolish error rather than an intentional escalation, suggesting he may have been looking for some way to avoid a crisis.
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.
On Twitter, Trump explained his decision —
….Death to America. I terminated deal, which was not even ratified by Congress, and imposed strong sanctions. They are a much weakened nation today than at the beginning of my Presidency, when they were causing major problems throughout the Middle East. Now they are Bust!….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 21, 2019
….proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone. 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!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 21, 2019
Democratic leaders in particular have urged the president to work with U.S. allies and stressed the need for caution to avoid any unintended escalation. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. 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.”
Pompeo and Bolton have advocated hardline policies against Iran, but Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., 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.
Some lawmakers insisted the White House must consult with Congress before taking any actions.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. R-K.Y. said, “The administration is engaged in what I would call measured responses.” And late Thursday, House Republicans on the Foreign Affairs, intelligence and Armed Services committees issued a statement using the same word, saying, “There must be a measured response to these actions.”
The Trump administration has been putting increasing economic pressure on Iran for more than a year.
Citing Iranian threats, the U.S. recently sent an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf region 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 U.S. and Iran into an open conflict 40 years after Tehran’s Islamic Revolution.
The paramilitary Guard, which answers only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said it shot down the drone at 4:05 a.m. Thursday when it entered Iranian airspace near the Kouhmobarak district in southern Iran’s Hormozgan province. Kouhmobarak is about 750 miles southeast of Tehran.
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Air Force Lt. Gen. Joseph Guastella, commander of U.S. 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 remotely piloted aircraft that can fly higher than 10 miles in altitude and stay in the air for over 24 hours at a time.
“This attack is an attempt to disrupt our ability to monitor the area following recent threats to international shipping and free flow of commerce,” he said.
Late Thursday, the Federal Aviation Administration barred American-registered aircrafts from flying over parts of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman and several major airlines from around the world on Friday began rerouting their flights to avoid the area.
The Associated Press contributed to this article