President Donald Trump abruptly called off military strikes against Iran on Thursday night after previously approving the strikes in retaliation for Iran shooting down a U.S. military drone, The New York Times reports.
The operation was already underway in its initial stages – ships were in position and planes were in the air – but no missiles had been fired when the order came to stand down, a senior administration official told the Times. The strike had been scheduled for just before dawn on Friday in Iran to minimize the risk to civilians and the Iranian military, and military officials received word shortly after then that the strike was off, at least temporarily.
The United States remains locked in a standoff with Iran, with U.S. military or diplomatic responses having the potential to provoke further escalation from Tehran. Iran’s downing of a U.S. drone earlier Thursday has left the President caught between Republicans demanding a response and congressional Democrats warning that Trump – and the Iran policy hardliners on his national security staff, who welcome the confrontation – could lose control of the situation and lead the U.S. into war.
Military and diplomatic officials were expecting a strike as late as 7 p.m. on Thursday after intense debate among Trump’s top national security officials and congressional leaders at the White House, multiple senior administration officials involved in or briefed on the deliberations told the Times.
Trump initially approved attacks on a handful of Iranian targets, like radar and missile batteries, and the Times reports it was not clear whether Trump simply changed his mind or whether his administration pulled back because of strategy or logistics. It was also not clear whether the attacks may still occur.
The Times reporting drew swift reaction from Trump’s Democratic rivals.
Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts tweeted that “there is no justification” for escalating tensions with Iran.
“Donald Trump promised to bring our troops home. Instead he has pulled out of a deal that was working and instigated another unnecessary conflict,” she wrote. “There is no justification for further escalating this crisis – we need to step back from the brink of war.”
The White House and Pentagon officials declined to comment to the Times, but no government officials asked for the article to be withheld. CNN has reached out to the White House for comment.
The strikes would have been Trump’s third military action against Middle East targets, according to the Times. Trump has twice struck targets in Syria.
Earlier Thursday, before the Times report, a senior White House official told CNN that Trump and national security adviser John Bolton were engaged in an ongoing debate about how to handle Iran.
Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, a CNN military analyst, told CNN’s Don Lemon Thursday on “CNN Tonight” that disagreement within the administration about whether to attack is not unusual for a White House.
“That’s something that occurs at any strategic decision level,” Hertling said, “when you’re mitigating risk or you’re attempting to understand what the risk might be based on the processes of war gaming and determining what your objectives are.”
Trump moved to ease tensions with Iran Thursday morning after Tehran downed a U.S. drone near the Persian Gulf, CNN previously reported. He struck a starkly different tone on Iran from Bolton and other senior security aides.
Iran shot down a U.S. military drone on Thursday, further escalating the already volatile situation playing out between Washington and Tehran in the Middle East.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard said it shot down an “intruding American spy drone” after it entered into the country’s territory.
A US official confirmed to CNN a drone had been shot down, but said the incident occurred in international airspace over the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world’s most vital shipping routes.
Earlier Thursday, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a notice that it was prohibiting U.S. flights over the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman due to rising tensions.