WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump said the US was “cocked and loaded” to retaliate against Iran for downing an American drone Thursday, but canceled the strikes 10 minutes before they were to be carried out after being told some 150 people could die.
Trump’s tweeted statement raised important questions, including why he learned about possible deaths only at the last minute.
His stance was the latest example of the president showing some reluctance to escalate tensions with Iran into open military conflict. He did not rule out a future strike but said in a TV interview that the likelihood of casualties from the Thursday night plan to attack three sites in Iran did not seem like the correct response to shooting down an unmanned drone earlier in the day in the Strait of Hormuz.
“I didn’t think it was proportionate,” he said in an interview with NBC News’ Meet the Press.
The aborted attack was the closest the U.S. has come to a direct military strike on Iran in the year since the administration pulled out of the 2015 international agreement intended to curb the Iranian nuclear program and launched a campaign of increasing economic pressure against the Islamic Republic.
Trump told NBC News that he never gave a final order to launch the strikes — planes were not yet in the air but would have been “pretty soon.”
He said military officials came to him about 30 minutes before the strikes were to be launched and asked him for his final approval. Before signing off, he said he asked how many Iranians would be killed and was told approximately 150.
“I thought about it for a second and I said, ‘You know what? They shot down an unmanned drone, plane — whatever you want to call it — and here we are sitting with 150 dead people.’ That would have taken place probably within a half an hour after I said go ahead. And I didn’t like it. I didn’t think it was proportionate.”
Trump tweeted Friday that the US was ready to “retaliate last night on 3 different sights when I asked, how many will die.” He said a general told him 150 people, and he canceled the strikes as “not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone.”
Trump tweeted that the US will never allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon. But he said he’s in no hurry to respond to the downing of the US surveillance drone over the Strait of Hormuz.
He said US sanctions are crippling the Iranian economy and that more are being added.
….On Monday they shot down an unmanned drone flying in International Waters. We were cocked & loaded to retaliate last night on 3 different sights when I asked, how many will die. 150 people, sir, was the answer from a General. 10 minutes before the strike I stopped it, not….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 21, 2019
The United States abruptly called off preparations for a military strike against Iran over the downing of a US surveillance drone, a US official said earlier, while Iran claimed Friday it had issued several warnings before shooting down the drone over what it said was Iranian territory.
The US official, who was not authorized to discuss the operation publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said the targets would have included radars and missile batteries.
The swift reversal was a 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 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 .
On Friday, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard’s aerospace division told Iranian state television that Iran had given repeated warnings before launching a missile at the US military surveillance drone.
Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, standing in front of what Iranian authorities described as pieces of the US Navy RQ-4A Global Hawk drone, told state TV that Iranians gave the warnings over radio frequencies that are routinely monitored by drone pilots and the US military. “Unfortunately, they did not answer,” he said.
He also said that Iran could have downed a manned a P-8 American plane, but did not.
He added Iran collected the debris from its territorial waters. The US military says that the drone was in international airspace over the Strait of Hormuz when it was shot down.
However, the New York Times quoted a senior administration official as saying that there was some doubt whether either of the US aircraft did violate Iranian airspace at some point. The official said the doubt was one of the reasons Trump called off the strike, according to the Times, which said that it could under international norms be viewed as an act of war.
The paper also reported that planes were in the air and ships were in position, but no missiles had been fired when word came to stand down.
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.
“I find it hard to believe it was intentional, if you want to know the truth,” Trump said at the White House. “I think that it could have been somebody who was loose and stupid that did it.”
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 Gen. Joseph Dunford, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and Army Secretary Mark Esper, whom Trump has said he’ll nominate as Pentagon chief.
Democratic leaders in particular 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 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, 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.
Times of Israel Staff contributed to this report