President Donald Trump on Friday confirmed that he called off a strike on Iran at the last minute Thursday night, saying he decided that the potential cost of human lives was “not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone.”
“We were cocked & loaded to retaliate last night on 3 different sights [sic] when I asked, how many will die. 150 people, sir, was the answer from a General. 10 minutes before the strike I stopped it,” Trump wrote in a series of tweets, adding that not only would such an attack have been disproportionate, “I am in no hurry, our Military is rebuilt, new, and ready to go, by far the best in the world.”
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Iran’s Revolutionary Guard announced Thursday it had shot down an American drone, claiming it had entered Iranian airspace, an assertion sharply disputed by the U.S.
Iran’s attack, which took place amid steadily escalating tensions between Washington and Tehran, prompted the president to summon congressional leaders to the White House for a briefing in the Situation Room on Thursday afternoon and drew mixed reactions from Iran hawks and anti-interventionists in Congress.
But while Trump called the drone-downing a “very big mistake” and apparently later authorized a retaliatory attack before calling it off, the president had earlier suggested he was not looking to get into a military conflict with Iran.
“I find it hard to believe it was intentional, if you want to know the truth. I think that it could have been somebody who was loose and stupid that did it,” the president said in the Oval Office on Thursday afternoon, telling reporters, “it would have made a big, big difference” if Iran’s attack had targeted military personnel.
Trump’s hesitation is indicative of the current struggle between different factions of his administration, and his own campaign promises to keep the country from entering into any additional conflicts in the Middle East. It is unclear why he apparently waited so long to inquire about the possible casualties stemming from the strike he approved — a New York Times report cited a senior administration official who said that “planes were in the air and ships were in position, but no missiles had been fired when word came to stand down.”
On Thursday, the president reportedly conveyed a message to Iran via neighboring Oman warning that a strike was imminent and calling for talks between the two countries to deescalate the growing crisis. “In his message, Trump said he was against any war with Iran and wanted to talk to Tehran about various issues,” Iranian officials told Reuters.
Thursday’s events took place against the backdrop of several key provocations over the course of the last several months from both countries. Since Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal last year, the U.S. has stepped up its maximum-pressure campaign in an attempt to force Iran into returning to negotiations to wind down its nuclear program, using sanctions in an attempt to choke off its lucrative oil industry.
Earlier this week, Tehran vowed that it would drastically ramp up its nuclear program, in violation of the Obama-era pact intended to restrain the Islamist country unless the remaining signatories stepped in to blunt the impact of U.S. sanctions.
And last week, two oil tankers in the Persian Gulf sustained damage from apparent explosions, an attack the U.S. has blamed on Iranian limpet mines. Iran has denied culpability in the incident, which followed similar attacks on tankers in the same region and drone attacks on Saudi oil pipelines last month.
The Trump administration, in response, has ordered several waves of U.S. troops to the region, while the remaining signatories in Europe, China and Russia are set to meet to craft a response to Iran’s warning.