Donald Trump reportedly gave initial approval for the military to launch strikes on Iran in retaliation for Tehran shooting down a US drone, before pulling back at the last minute.
Planes were in the air and ships were in position, but no missiles had been fired when word came to stand down on Thursday night, the New York Times quoted an unnamed official as saying.
US military and diplomatic officials were expecting strikes on a handful of radar and missile sites after the president’s top national security officials and congressional leaders gathered at the White House, the paper said. The military operation was called off around 7.30 pm ET (12.30am BST) .
It was not clear if strikes would go ahead at a later date. The White House and Pentagon have not commented on the reports.
The Democratic House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, who had attended a classified White House briefing with other congressional leaders, had said the administration should “do everything in our power to de-escalate”, while Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said he worried the administration “may bumble into a war”.
He said he told the president there must be a “robust, open debate” and Congress should have a real say. Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House intelligence committee, said: “The president certainly listened to what we had to say.”
One of the targets of the planned strikes was the S-125 Neva/Pechora surface-to-air missile system, Newsweek quoted a Pentagon official as saying. It reported the US believed the system was behind the US drone attack, although Tehran said it had used its “3rd Khordad” air defence system, the Iranian equivalent of the Russian Buk system that downed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014.
Trump had earlier appeared keen to calm tensions following the shooting down early on Thursday of the US Global Hawk drone, saying blame might be on a “loose and stupid” Iranian officer acting without authorisation from Tehran.
“We didn’t have a man or woman in the drone. It would have made a big, big difference,” Trump said. Asked how the US would respond, he said: “You’ll find out.”
The downing on Thursday of the unarmed aircraft, which can fly at altitudes of up to 60,000ft, was the latest of a series of incidents that have raised tensions in the Gulf region, a critical artery for global oil supplies. Earlier, a total of six oil tankers were damaged in two separate attacks.
According to a US official who spoke to the Associated Press, the strikes were recommended by the Pentagon and were among the options presented to senior administration officials.
The report of the swift reversal on US retaliation came as the US Federal Aviation Administration banned all US airlines and aircraft from flying in Iranian airspace close to where the US drone was shot down due to “heightened military activities”, as tensions increase in the region.
The FAA issued an emergency order saying all flight operations over water in the Tehran flight information region of the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman were prohibited until further notice because military activities and political tensions “present an inadvertent risk to US civil aviation operations and potential for miscalculation or mis-identification”.
The order applies to US aircraft only but since the MH17 disaster, all countries rely on airspace risk advice from the US, UK, France and Germany.
On Thursday, Iran’s foreign minister and the US military offered competing graphics showing the drone’s flight path and where it was brought down.
Javad Zarif said Iran had recovered parts of the drone in its waters and that it had originally taken off from the United Arab Emirates.
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. pic.twitter.com/pJ34Tysmsg
June 20, 2019
A map issued by US Central Command suggested the drone was brought down in international waters in the Strait of Hormuz.
U.S. Central Command
The ISR Flight path and grid plots for the RQ-4A shot down by Iran in the Strait of Hormuz. “This was an unprovoked attack on a U.S. surveillance asset that had not violated Iranian airspace at any time …” – Lt Gen Joseph Guastella, @USAFCENT pic.twitter.com/uczI5HF68b
June 20, 2019
Flight tracking data showed commercial aircraft flying close to the Global Hawk drone at the time it was shot down, said OPS Group, which provides safety guidance to air operators.
“The threat of a civil aircraft shootdown in southern Iran is real,” it advised operators on Thursday. “Avoiding the Strait of Hormuz area is recommended – misidentification of aircraft is possible.”
Here is our high-res map of the Civil Air Traffic picture at 2335Z last night, showing the risk to aircraft operators in the region. #opsgroup #flightplanning #IranUSTension #StraitofHormuz #drone #missile #iran #GulfOfOman pic.twitter.com/FfhGhdsKvr
June 20, 2019
Last month, US regulator the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) advised airlines to exercise caution in flying over Iran and nearby areas, due to heightened military activities and increased political tension.
It said: “Although Iran likely has no intention to target civil aircraft, the presence of multiple long-range, advanced anti-aircraft capable weapons in a tense environment poses a possible risk of miscalculation or misidentification, especially during periods of heightened political tension and rhetoric.”