WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump said Thursday that Tehran had made a “very big mistake” in shooting down a US spy drone near the strategic Strait of Hormuz.
“They made a very big mistake,” Trump told reporters at the White House following the strike in the strait. “This country will not stand for it, that I can tell you.”
Asked by a reporter if he plans to order a strike on Iran in response to the downing of the drone, Trump said: “You will find out.”
But Trump simultaneously appeared to play down the incident saying it may have been unintentional.
“I find it hard to believe it was intentional,” Trump said. “I have a feeling that it was a mistake made by somebody who should not have been doing.”
Amid the rising tensions in the Persian Gulf region, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave his backing to Trump, appealing to “all peace-loving countries” to support American efforts to halt what he called escalating Iranian provocations.
Speaking Thursday at a reception in Jerusalem for New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Netanyahu said that “in the last 24 hours, Iran has intensified its aggression against the United States and against all of us,” adding that “Israel stands by the United States and its military.”
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Thursday Trump had been briefed Wednesday night and again Thursday morning about the incident. She said the administration would also keep in touch with lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard said it shot down the drone over Iranian airspace. The US military is calling the downing an “unprovoked attack” and said it occurred over international airspace in the Strait of Hormuz. A US general said the drone was taken down some 34 kilometers (21 miles) off the Iranian coast.
Iran made a very big mistake!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 20, 2019
The Pentagon released fuzzy footage of the struck drone crashing into the sea.
The downing of the drone came as Iran was already accused by Washington — as well as allies Saudi Arabia, Germany and others — of having carried out bomb attacks on two oil tankers in the congested Hormuz area. Tehran denies having been behind the attacks but has frequently threatened in the past to block the sea lanes used by ships to move much of the world’s oil exports.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, meanwhile, insisted Thursday the US was lying about the location of the drone and vowed to “take this new aggression” to the United Nations, where it would prove that the drone had entered its airspace, contrary to Washington’s claims.
The US wages #EconomicTerrorism on Iran, has conducted covert action against us & now encroaches on our territory.
We don't seek war, but will zealously defend our skies, land & waters.
We'll take this new aggression to #UN & show that the US is lying about international waters
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) June 20, 2019
“The US wages #EconomicTerrorism on Iran, has conducted covert action against us & now encroaches on our territory. We don’t seek war, but will zealously defend our skies, land & waters. We’ll take this new aggression to #UN & show that the US is lying about international waters,” he said on Twitter.
Shortly after Trump’s comments, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the highest-ranked elected Democrat, said the US cannot be “reckless” amid heightened tensions with Iran. Pelosi said she didn’t think Trump wanted to go to war, and that the American people didn’t want war either.
“There’s no appetite for going to war in our country,” she said. The US needs to be “strong and strategic” about protecting its interests, Pelosi said, and “cannot be reckless.”
Pelosi called a caucus-wide meeting of Democrats for later Thursday on Iran. House and Senate leadership will also be briefed by administration officials.
At the same time, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called Iran a “murderous regime” and blamed Tehran for the current tension.
Graham, who spoke with Trump by telephone Thursday morning, said the Iranians have rebuffed the president’s willingness to negotiate by refusing to respond to a letter from Trump that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently hand-delivered.
“Not only did the Iranians give a provocative oral response, but they also attacked a Japanese oil tanker at the same time,” Graham said, referring to the attack on Kokuka Courageous, a Japanese tanker carrying Saudi methanol that was traveling in the Gulf of Oman. Iran has denied involvement.
As for the possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons, Graham said it’s imperative that the US clearly tell the Iranians that any attempt to increase uranium enrichment will be seen as a “hostile act against the United States and our allies in Israel and will not go unanswered.” Graham added that if a US military response is necessary, it should be focused on Iranian naval assets and oil refineries, which are the economic lifeblood of the country.
The US confirmed Thursday that the unmanned American drone was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile. A US official told Reuters that military forces were dispatched to the location of the drone’s crash in the strait.
In a statement, US Central Command said the incident was “an unprovoked attack on a US surveillance asset in international airspace.”
The incident come against the backdrop of heightened tensions between the US and Iran following Trump’s decision to withdraw from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers a year ago.
The statement identified the drone as an RQ-4 Global Hawk, which provides real-time intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions.
The drones cost over $100 million apiece and can fly higher than 10 miles in altitude and stay in the air for over 24 hours at a time. They have a distinguishable hump-shaped front and an engine atop. Their wingspan is bigger than that of a Boeing 737 passenger jet.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard said in a statement that the drone had turned off its identification transponder, state broadcaster IRIB reported, according to the Reuters news agency.
“The drone took off from a US base in the southern Persian Gulf … It had turned off all its identifying equipment in violation of aviation rules and was moving in full secrecy,” read the statement, according to IRIB.
Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, which answers only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said it shot down the drone Thursday morning when it entered Iranian airspace near the Kouhmobarak district in southern Iran’s Hormozgan province.
Kouhmobarak is some 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) southeast of Tehran and is close to the Strait of Hormuz.
The Guard said it shot down the drone at 4:05 a.m. after it collected data from Iranian territory, including the southern port of Chahbahar near Iran’s border with Pakistan. Iran used its air defense system known as Third of Khordad to shoot down the drone — a truck-based missile system that can fire up to 18 miles (30 kilometers) into the sky, the semiofficial Fars news agency reported.
The commander of the Revolutionary Guard said that the shooting down of a US drone had sent “a clear message” to America.
In comments carried live on Thursday on Iranian state television, Gen. Hossein Salami also said that Iran does “not have any intention for war with any country, but we are ready for war.”
Salami, speaking to a crowd in the western city of Sanandaj, described the American drone as “violating our national security border.”
“Borders are our red line,” Salami said. “Any enemy that violates the borders will be annihilated.”
Iran’s Foreign Ministry issued a warning to the US against violating Iranian airspace.
A ministry spokesman, Abbas Mousavi, was quoted by the semiofficial Tasnim news agency as saying that Iran cannot condone the “illegal trespassing and invading of the country’s skies by any kind of foreign flying object.”
Mousavi expressed Iran’s “strong objection” and added that the “invaders will bear full responsibility.”
The downing of the RQ-4 Global Hawk comes after the US military alleged Iran had fired a missile last week at a drone that was responding to an attack on two oil tankers near the Gulf of Oman. The US blames Iran for the attack on the ships, an allegation Tehran rejects.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin called for caution, warning any war between Iran and the US would be a “catastrophe for the region as a minimum.”
Iran recently has quadrupled its production of low-enriched uranium and threatened to boost its enrichment closer to weapons-grade levels, trying to pressure Europe for new terms to the 2015 deal.
In recent weeks, the US sped up the deployment of an aircraft carrier battle group to the Mideast and deployed additional troops to the tens of thousands already in the region. Mysterious attacks also have targeted oil tankers as Iranian-allied Houthi rebels launched bomb-laden drones into Saudi Arabia. Israel and the US are said to blame Iran for the tanker attacks.
All this has raised fears that a miscalculation or further rise in escalation could push the US and Iran into an open conflict, some 40 years after Tehran’s Islamic Revolution.