US planes were on course to strike Iran yesterday after President Donald Trump approved a military response to the downing of a $220 million American drone by Iran, but pulled back at the last minute.
Military and diplomatic officials in the US were expecting bombs to rain down on Iranian targets as late as 7pm yesterday following intense discussions and debate at the White House among the President’s top national security officials and congressional leaders, according to the New York Times which cited multiple senior administration officials involved in or briefed on the deliberations.
Officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the President had initially approved attacks on a handful of Iranian targets, like radar and missile batteries, but later changed his mind. No explanation for the sudden U-turn was given and it’s not clear if the attack was called off temporarily.
Planes are said to have been in the air and ships in position when the attack was called off by Trump’s team. They have been on the war path since escalating tensions with the Islamic Republic following Trump’s decision to unilaterally withdraw from the nuclear deal and impose crippling sanctions on Iran, against the advice of key allies in the West as well as Russia and China, who are also signatories to the 2015 nuclear deal.
The aborted operation followed intense speculation over how the White House would respond to the shooting of a US drone by Iran over the Strait of Hormuz. The waterway is a major chokepoint for the global economy as about a third of the world’s seaborne oil exits the Gulf through the Strait, where last week two oil tankers were attacked. Trump blamed Iran for the attack though Tehran has denied any role and accused the US and its allies of conducting a false flag operation to start a war.
Iranians claim that the “spy” drone was shot down because it had entered into Iranian airspace. Rejecting the White House’s insistence that the drone was flying over international airspace when it was shot down, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Twitter that the aircraft had taken off from the United Arab Emirates “in stealth mode & violated Iranian airspace.”
Zarif also denounced US actions against his country saying that “the US wages #EconomicTerrorism on Iran, has conducted covert action against us & now encroaches on our territory.”
Iran’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Majid Takht Ravanchi, reported the incident to the UN and said in a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the Security Council that the American drone was engaged in a “clear spying operation” in Iran’s airspace.
He called the flight a “blatant violation of international law” and said Iran acted under Article 51 of the UN Charter, which allows military action in self-defence “if an armed attack occurs.”
Trump himself appeared to dampen fears over a military response during a meeting in the White House yesterday. “This drone was in international waters, clearly,” the President told reporters as he began a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada. “It’s hard to believe it was intentional, if you want to know the truth,” he added, saying it could have been carried out by someone who was acting “loose and stupid,” and minimising the incident as “a new wrinkle … a new fly in the ointment.”
Top American security officials are said to be deeply divided over Trump’s US policy. According to the New York Times Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, John R. Bolton the national security adviser and CIA Director Gina Haspel had favoured a military response but top Pentagon officials cautioned that such an action could result in a spiralling escalation with risks for American forces in the region.
Senior Democrats are also unconvinced about Trump’s policy. Commenting after a classified White House briefing for lawmakers yesterday Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives, urged the administration to avoid taking a “reckless” approach to the crisis. Her colleague Chuck Schumer, the top Democrat in the Senate, said he informed Trump that any military action against Iran would need congressional approval.
Schumer also urged that the White House should learn the lessons of Iraq. “The President may not intend to go to war here. But we’re worried that he and the administration may bumble into a war,” he was reported saying by the Financial Times. “One of the best ways to avoid bumbling into war… is to have a robust open debate and for Congress to have a real say. We learnt that lesson in the run-up to Iraq.”
Fears over further escalation and a military strike on Iran prompted the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to issue an emergency order prohibiting US carriers from flying in the overwater area of Iranian-controlled airspace until further notice. Other airlines around the world have followed suit and are cancelling or rerouting flights to avoid the region.
Business Insider reported that at least seven airlines are making changes to their plans to pass through Iranian-controlled airspace, citing security concerns. British Airways, the national carrier of the Netherlands KLM, Malaysia Airlines, Australian carrier Qantas, German airline Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines have all taken the decision to reroute their flights.