U.S. President Donald Trump approved military strikes against Iran in response for the downing of an American drone, but pulled back after planes were in air and ships were in position, The New York Times reported Friday, citing administration officials.
The report claimed the order to halt attacks on Iranian radar and missile batteries came after intense debate at the White House among top security officials and congressional leaders. No missiles had been fired and it is not clear whether Washington will still move forward with the strikes.
The plan was intended as retaliation for the downing of a U.S. military drone in international airspace over the Strait of Hormuz by an Iranian surface-to-air missile on Thursday, according to a senior U.S. official who was briefed on the military planning and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The surveillance drone was identified both by U.S. officials and Tehran as an RQ-4 Global Hawk, made by Northrop Grumman.
On Friday, Iranian officials told Reuters that Tehran had received a message from Trump through Oman overnight warning that a U.S. attack on Iran was imminent.
"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 (Ayatollah Ali) Khamenei to decide about this issue," one of the officials told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
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The second 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."
Meanwhile, Amirali Hajizadeh, head of the Revolutionary Guards aerospace division, was quoted Friday as saying by Tasnim news agency: "With the U.S. drone in the region there was also an American P-8 plane with 35 people on board. This plane also entered our airspace and we could have shot it down, but we did not."
White House officials said Trump had given the green light to strike several Iranian targets, including radar and missile batteries, the report said.
The operation was underway in its early stages when it was called off, a senior administration official said.
The abrupt reversal preempted what would have been the Trump’s third military action in the Middle East, striking targets in Syria in 2017 and 2018.
It remains unclear whether Trump simply changed his mind on the strikes or the administration changed course because of logistics or strategy.
The White House as well as Pentagon officials declined to comment on the matter.
According to The New York times, the strike was meant to take place early Friday in order to lower the risk to the Iranian army and uninvolved civilians.
Senior administration officials said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Adviser John Bolton, and CIA Director Gina Haspel had favored a military response. However, top Pentagon officials warned that such an action could irrevocably exacerbate tensions and put U.S. forces in the Middle East at risk.
In a letter to the Security Council, Majid Takht-Ravanchi, Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, wrote that the drone ignored repeated radio warnings before it was shot down. He said Tehran “does not seek war” but “is determined to vigorously defend its land, sea and air.”
Iran's Revolutionary Guard said earlier Thursday that it shot down a U.S. "spy" drone in the southern province of Hormozgan. "It was shot down when it entered Iran's airspace near the Kouhmobarak," it said.
A senior Iranian security official said on Wednesday Iran would "strongly respond" to any violation of its airspace.
The commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guard said that the shooting down of the U.S. drone has sent "a clear message" to America.
Gen. Hossein Salami said also says that Iran does "not have any intention for war with any country, but we are ready for war."
Trump told reporters in the Oval Office Thursday that the drone was unarmed and clearly in international waters and that it could have been shot down by someone who was "loose and stupid." Asked how the U.S. will respond, Trump said to reporters, "You'll find out."
"I think probably Iran made a mistake - I would imagine it was a general or somebody that made a mistake in shooting that drone down," Trump said during an appearance with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif rejected the claim, saying on Twitter on that the United States is lying over its drone being hit in international waters, saying Tehran will take the matter to the United Nations.
"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," Zarif tweeted.
"At 00:14 US drone took off from UAE in stealth mode & violated Iranian airspace. It was targeted at 04:05 at the coordinates (25°59'43"N 57°02'25"E) near Kouh-e Mobarak. We've retrieved sections of the US military drone in OUR territorial waters where it was shot down," Zarif said.
Earlier, Trump made his first statement on the incident on Twitter, only writing, "Iran made a very big mistake!" In May 2019, Trump had warned Iran about threatening the United States, "If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!"
"Iranian reports that the aircraft was over Iran are false," said Navy Captain Bill Urban, a spokesman for the U.S. military's Central Command.
Meanwhile, the semi-official Tasnim news agency quoted the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security council as saying: "Our airspace is our red line and Iran has always responded and will continue to respond strongly to any country that violates our airspace."
On Wednesday, Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthis struck a power station in Saudi Arabia’s al-Shuqaiq city, in the southern province of Jizan, with a cruise missile, their Al Masirah TV said, but there was no immediate confirmation from Saudi authorities.
The attacks come against the backdrop of heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran following President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw from Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers a year ago. The White House separately said it was aware of reports of a missile strike on Saudi Arabia amid a campaign targeting the kingdom by Yemen's Iranian-allied Houthi rebels.
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 U.S. has sped an aircraft carrier 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.
All this has raised fears that a miscalculation or further rise in tensions could push the U.S. and Iran into an open conflict, some 40 years after Tehran's Islamic Revolution.
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.