Trump Stopped Strike on Iran Because It Was ‘Not Proportionate’

President Trump said Friday morning that the United States military had been “cocked and loaded” for a strike against Iran on Thursday night, but that he called it off with 10 minutes to spare when a general told him that 150 people would probably die in the attack.

The president said in a series of tweets just after 9 a.m. that he was prepared to retaliate against three sites in Iran for that country’s shooting down an American drone, but that he was “in no hurry.” He indicated that the death of 150 Iranians would not be “proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone.”

It was unclear why Mr. Trump would have been getting information about possible casualties so late in the process of launching military action. Such information is typically discussed early in the deliberations between a president and national security officials.

Mr. Trump called Iran a “much weakened nation” because he decided to withdraw from the nuclear agreement negotiated by his predecessor and because of the sanctions that his administration had imposed. He also suggested that new sanctions had been imposed on Iran on Thursday night, but he did not elaborate.

“Sanctions are biting & more added last night,” he tweeted. “Iran can NEVER have Nuclear Weapons, not against the USA, and not against the WORLD!”

The president’s decision to abort the strikes in favor of increased pressure on Iran through sanctions is in line with the advice he has received from some of his top advisers about the effectiveness of choking off Iran’s access to the globe’s financial networks.

During deliberations about the strikes in the Situation Room on Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo argued that sanctions were having a powerful effect by slashing Iran’s revenues oil sales, according to a senior administration official familiar with the discussion.

Mr. Pompeo favored some kind of pinpoint, military response to the drone strike, the official said. But the secretary of state also stressed to Mr. Trump that the sanctions were having the long-term effect that the administration had hoped.

Mr. Trump’s tweets on Friday suggested that Mr. Pompeo’s arguments may have influenced his decision to back down from the strikes.

Administration officials, including military commanders, did not issue public statements Friday morning to clarify the internal deliberations or the president’s actions. But one person familiar with Mr. Trump’s thinking said he was pleased with Thursday night’s events because he liked the “command” of approving the strike, but also the decisiveness of calling it off.

Reaction to the president’s actions came swiftly on Friday, suggesting that the aborted strike could exacerbate divisions on national security within the Republican Party between those agitating for more aggressive action and others deeply opposed.

Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the chairwoman of the Republican Conference and one of the top Republicans in the House, lashed out Friday at Mr. Trump’s decision, comparing his actions to former President Barack Obama’s public waffling over striking Syria over its chemical weapons attacks in 2013.

“The failure to respond to this kind of direct provocation that we’ve seen now from the Iranians, in particular over the last several weeks, could in fact be a very serious mistake,” Ms. Cheney told Hugh Hewitt, a conservative radio host, in an interview.

Ms. Cheney did not fault Mr. Trump directly, but she made it clear she was deeply concerned about his retreat from a strike.

She said leaders must “recognize that weakness is provocative, and that a world in which response to attacks on American assets is to pull back, or to accept the attack, is a world in which America won’t be able to successfully defend our interests.”

Critics of the president, including Democratic politicians, said the episode was evidence of a dangerous lack of steady deliberations at the White House during a crisis that could lead to a military confrontation.

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, blasted Mr. Trump after The New York Times reported his decision to order strikes and then pulled back.

“Donald Trump promised to bring our troops home,” Ms. Warren wrote late Thursday night on Twitter. “Instead he has pulled out of a deal that was working and instigated another unnecessary conflict. There is no justification for further escalating this crisis — we need to step back from the brink of war.”

David Rothkopf, the author of two histories of the National Security Council, said on Twitter that the fact that Mr. Trump “blinked” in the face of Iran’s aggression was “not a sign of restraint so much as evidence of indecision and bumbling — the situation remains very dangerous and prone to accidental escalation and/or spinning out of control.”

 

Where Was Drone Shot Down? U.S. and Iran Dispute Location

Representative Ted Lieu of California, a fierce critic of the president, tweeted that “@realdonaldtrump has no idea what he is doing, especially in foreign policy.”

Mr. Lieu added: “Also very troubled we are reading about these high level US decisions about Iran in the media. The national security leaks from the Trump Administration are mind boggling.”


The dispute over the location of the drone when Iran shot it down Thursday morning continued for a second day. Iran’s government released photographs Friday morning of what it said were fragments of the high-altitude surveillance drone, saying that the pieces were retrieved from Iranian territorial waters. Iran has insisted it shot the drone down after it violated the country’s airspace.

To bolster its claims, Iran late Thursday released video of what it said was the moment its air defense system shot down the drone. The Defense Department countered with images of the drone’s flight path showing that it never entered Iranian airspace, though the images offered little context for an image that appeared to be the drone exploding in midair.

Still, there remained doubt inside the United States government over whether the drone, or another American surveillance aircraft, this one flown by a military aircrew, did violate Iranian airspace at some point, according to a senior administration official. The official said the doubt was one of the reasons Mr. Trump called off the strike — which could under international norms be viewed as an act of war.

The delay by United States Central Command in publicly releasing GPS coordinates of the drone when it was shot down — hours after Iran did — and errors in the labeling of the drone’s flight path when the imagery was released, contributed to that doubt, officials said.


A lack of provable “hard evidence” about the location of the drone when it was hit, a defense official said, put the administration in an isolated position at what could easily end up being the start of yet another war with a Middle East adversary — this one with a proven ability to strike back.

There were virtually no European allies stepping forward on Thursday to back the Trump administration, heightening the fear that it could find itself in an intractable war with only Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel for allies, officials said.

After the military was ordered to stand down on Thursday evening, it was initially put on a 24-hour hold for possible strikes, a move that would have allowed Mr. Trump to quickly revive them, according to a senior administration official familiar with the discussions.

But the hold has been lifted, according to the official, who requested anonymity to discuss confidential deliberations about possible military actions. Mr. Trump could still launch a strike relatively quickly if he ordered the military to do so, the official said.

The Iranian government on Friday denied a report by Reuters that Mr. Trump warned Iran about an imminent attack Thursday night by sending a message to Tehran’s leaders through contacts in Oman. A senior administration official said the Pentagon did propose sending such a message but that John Bolton, the national security adviser, rejected the idea. It was not clear why Mr. Bolton objected.

This is not the first time that the United States and Iran have had conflicting accounts of American military actions near Iran.

On July 3, 1988, the Vincennes, a guided missile cruiser, shot down an Iranian passenger jet, killing 290 people. The Defense Department initially denied that the Vincennes had shot it down. Then the Pentagon said that the Vincennes was in international waters and that the jet was descending toward the ship in a threatening manner. The Defense Department also said it radioed the plane repeatedly in warning.

The first two assertions turned out to be false and the last assertion irrelevant because the Navy was using a frequency rarely checked by passenger jets. In 1996, the United States, expressing “deep regret,” agreed to pay $61.8 million to the families of the people on the plane.

Also on Friday, the Federal Aviation Administration issued an emergency order barring American airlines from flying in airspace controlled by Iran over the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. The F.A.A. said the order was because of “heightened military activities and increased political tensions.”

Several carriers, including United Airlines and Lufthansa, a German airline, quickly suspended routes that fly through that airspace. United flies from Newark, N.J., to Mumbai along a route that takes the plane over Iran.

Mr. Trump made his decisions about a military strike Thursday night without the advice of a permanent defense secretary, the senior civilian official presidents usually lean on during times of such crises.

The position has been formally vacant since Jim Mattis left at the end of 2018, declaring in his resignation letter that Mr. Trump deserves “a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours” about how to treat allies with respect, and other issues.

Patrick M. Shanahan, the Pentagon’s deputy, had been serving as the acting secretary but withdrew from consideration for the post this week amid revelations about his divorce and an ongoing F.B.I. investigation into episodes of family violence.

Mr. Shanahan has not yet left the position, but he will be replaced over coming days by Mark T. Esper, the secretary of the Army and a former Raytheon executive, who the president said would take over as acting secretary of defense. Mr. Trump plans to nominate Mr. Esper to permanently serve as defense secretary, according to administration officials.

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