Trump sent message to Iran: Hold talks or we’ll strike — report

US president said to have urged Tehran to come to the table, warning of impending military action over drone’s downing; Iranian officials say they conveyed matter to Khamenei

The flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in the Arabian Sea, on May 19, 2019. (Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Garrett LaBarge/US Navy via AP)
The flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in the Arabian Sea, on May 19, 2019. (Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Garrett LaBarge/US Navy via AP)

US President Donald Trump on Thursday night urged Iran to come to the table to hold talks in a message conveyed through Oman, and warned that a US strike against the Islamic Republic could be imminent, according to a report Friday morning.

“In his message, Trump said he was against any war with Iran and wanted to talk to Tehran about various issues… he gave a short period of time to get our response, but Iran’s immediate response was that it is up to Supreme Leader [Ali] Khamenei to decide about this issue,” an unnamed official told Reuters.

Another official said: “We made it clear that the leader is against any talks, but the message will be conveyed to him to make a decision… However, we told the Omani official that any attack against Iran will have regional and international consequences.”

The report comes after American officials said the US made preparations for a military strike against Iran in retaliation for the downing of a US surveillance drone, but the operation was abruptly called off with just hours to go.

The 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 New York Times reported that Trump had approved the strikes Thursday night, but then called them off. The newspaper cited anonymous senior administration officials.

US President Donald Trump in the Rose Garden of the White House, June 14, 2019. (AP/Jose Luis Magana)

The White House on Thursday night declined requests for comment.

Asked earlier in the day about a US response to the attack, Trump said, “You’ll soon find out.”

The swift reversal was a stark 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.

According to the 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 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.

An RQ-4 Global Hawk on the tarmac of the al-Dhafra Air Base near Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, February 13, 2018. (Airman 1st Class D. Blake Browning/US Air Force via AP)

On Thursday night Israeli security sources told Channel 13 they were concerned a lack of a decisive US response would embolden Iran to become more aggressive.

The downing of the US drone — a huge, unmanned aircraft — over the Strait of Hormuz prompted accusations from the US and Iran about who was the aggressor. Iran insisted the drone violated Iranian airspace; Washington said it had been flying over international waters.

On Friday morning Iran released photos of what it said were the drone’s remains.

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 shoot-down as “a new wrinkle… a new fly in the ointment.” Yet he also said that “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.

Iran said Friday it had “indisputable” evidence the US drone had violated its airspace.

Iran said Friday it had called in the Swiss ambassador, whose country has represented US interests since the severance of diplomatic relations in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution of 1979, to issue a formal protest.

Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi provided the ambassador with “indisputable” evidence that the drone had violated Iranian airspace, the foreign ministry said. Araghchi “reiterated that Iran does not seek a war and conflict in the Persian Gulf,” but warned: “The Islamic Republic of Iran would not hesitate for a moment to decisively defend its territory against any aggression.”

Iranian soldiers take part in the National Persian Gulf Day in the Strait of Hormuz, April 30, 2019. (AFP/Atta Kenare, File)

The Trump administration has been putting increasing economic pressure on Iran for more than a year. It reinstated punishing sanctions following Trump’s decision to pull the US out of an international agreement intended to limit Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for relief from earlier sanctions.

The other world powers who remain signed on to the nuclear deal have set a meeting to discuss the US withdrawal and Iran’s announced plans to increase its uranium stockpile for June 28, a date far enough in the future to perhaps allow tensions to cool.

On Thursday, Iran called the sanctions “economic terrorism.”

Citing Iranian threats, the US 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 US and Iran into an open conflict 40 years after Tehran’s Islamic Revolution.

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