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Trump-Iran news: President claims he called off airstrikes on Tehran after general told him '150 people would die'

White House reportedly approves then abruptly pulls back from offensive in Middle East

Chris Riotta
New York
,Tom Embury-Dennis,Joe Sommerlad
Friday 21 June 2019 15:30 BST
Donald Trump tight lipped on response to Iran

Donald Trump approved military strikes against Iran before abruptly pulling back at the last minute, sparking controversy and outcry.

“On Monday they shot down an unmanned drone flying in International Waters. We were cocked & loaded to retaliate last night on 3 different sights when I asked, how many will die. 150 people, sir, was the answer from a General. 10 minutes before the strike I stopped it, not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone,” the president explained in a series of tweets.

Having responded to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ decision to shoot down the costly US Navy surveillance drone with a surface-to-air missile, the president said Tehran had made “a very big mistake” but ultimately refrained from going through with an operation that would have targetted radars and missile batteries in the Gulf.

The president said on Friday the US was “cocked and loaded” to retaliate against Iran for downing the unmanned American surveillance drone but he cancelled the strikes minutes before they were to be launched after being told 150 people could die.

Mr Trump’s tweeted statement raised important questions, including why he learned about possible deaths only at the last minute.

His stance was the latest example of the president showing some reluctance to escalate tensions with Iran into open military conflict.

He did not rule out a future strike but said in a TV interview that the likelihood of casualties from the Thursday night plan to attack three sites in Iran did not seem like the correct response to shooting down an unmanned drone earlier in the day in the Strait of Hormuz.

“I didn’t think it was proportionate,” he said in an interview with NBC News’ Meet the Press.

The aborted attack was the closest the US has come to a direct military strike on Iran in the year since the administration pulled out of the 2015 international agreement intended to curb the Iranian nuclear program and launched a campaign of increasing economic pressure against the Islamic Republic.

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Mr Trump told NBC News that he never gave a final order to launch the strikes — planes were not yet in the air but would have been “pretty soon.”

Additional reporting by AP. Please allow a moment for our liveblog to load


Good morning and welcome to The Independent's live coverage of the day's developments in Washington and the Middle East. 

Donald Trump reportedly approved then abruptly pulled back from launching military strikes against Iran on Friday morning, amid apparent White House confusion branded a “clear risk” to national security by a former US government foreign policy adviser. 

Having initially said he believed Iran had made “a very big mistake” when it shot down a US drone early on Thursday in the Strait of Hormuz, the president is nonetheless believed to have approved retaliatory military strikes against Tehran.

The operation to hit targets such as radars and missile batteries was in its initial stages, The New York Times said, and planes were in the air and ships being moved into position. But, before any missiles were fired, the president decided not to go ahead with the operation.

Ben Rhodes, Barack Obama’s former deputy national security adviser, claimed the “absence of any rational, coherent process for national security decision-making has always been a clear risk under Trump... Now we see what that looks like in a crisis.”

It was not clear if Mr Trump had changed his mind, or whether the strike was called off for operational or strategic reasons, said the report, the incident following months of tensions arising from the US decision to withdraw from a 2015 nuclear accord with Tehran last year and secretary of state Mike Pompeo blaming the country's navy for the bombing of two foreign oil tankers in the strait with limpet mines.

At the same time, the Federal Aviation Administration issued an emergency order prohibiting US operators from flying in airspace controlled by Iran above “the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman”.

The order came as United Airlines suspended its Mumbai-Newark flight that passes over Iran citing safety concerns, The Financial Times said. Lufthansa, Qantas Airways and KLM flights have also been diverted away from the Gulf.

Our US correspondent Andrew Buncombe has the latest.

Tom.Embury-Dennis21 June 2019 07:59

"It’s really hard to say with President Trump, and I certainly wouldn’t consider myself to be a Trump whisperer, but somebody obviously got to him, and whether that was Tucker Carlson from Fox News or prime minister Justin Trudeau, it’s hard to say," says Dr Karin von Hippel of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) on BBC Radio 4's Today programme this morning, attempting to explain the president's drastic retreat from attacking Iran.

Dr Von Hippel was referring to the Fox anchor who is thought to serve as Trump's unofficial adviser on the politics of attacking Iran and to the Canadian premier, who was at the White House on Thursday for a working lunch.

Carlson did actually take to the air yesterday to with a features called "Hungry for War", hitting out at the likes of national security adviser John Bolton who "want a war badly, badly enough to lie about it, that's why they're putting American troops into situations where conflict is inevitable".

“[Carlson] has been anti-war in the Middle East," Dr Von Hippel continued. "He’s been pushing Trump very hard not to do anything with Iran, and even challenged Pompeo’s intelligence briefing the other day on Fox News, and we know Trump really likes him and listens to him, I just don’t know, but with Trump it seems that he has one approach and it’s the same approach in business as foreign policy, and he likes to push very hard to the brink, and he assumes others will cave, and in foreign policy it just doesn’t work that way.”

"Trump is trying to show he’s tough, but he’s very nervous about war, and that’s actually reassuring," she said.

"He has Bolton and Pompeo on the one side pushing him very hard, super hawkish on Iran, and he himself had promised not to go to war in the Middle East... He wants to appear tough without actually doing anything significant."

This last line certainly ties in with Trump's run-ins with North Korea and Mexico.

Here's what Fox were broadcasting last night, so any personal intervention from Tucker Carlson - an unlikely hero of the hour - would have flown in the face of his warmongering colleagues.

Here's more from Tom Embury-Dennis.

Joe Sommerlad21 June 2019 08:34

Speaking to reporters in the Oval Office yesterday with Trudeau at his side, President Trump appeared to be seeking to downplay the significance of the shooting down of the US Navy's RQ-4A Global Hawk surveillance drone by Iran's Revolutionary Guard, suggesting the act could have been carried out by someone who was acting "loose and stupid," adding that he suspected it was shot down by mistake.

"I find it hard to believe it was intentional, if you want to know the truth," he said. "I think that it could have been somebody who was loose and stupid that did it."

Trump, who has previously said he wants to avoid war and negotiate with Iran over its nuclear ambitions, characterised the incident as "a new wrinkle... a new fly in the ointment". Yet he also said "this country will not stand for it, that I can tell you".

"We had nobody in the drone. It would have made a big difference, let me tell you, it would have made a big, big difference [had it been piloted]," he added.

Trump's suggestion the incident had happened in error contradicted both his own aggressive tweet and a statement made by Iranian general Hossein Salami, who said it had been taken out to send "a clear message" to America, adding that Iran does “not have any intention for war with any country, but we are ready for war”.

The US military had also described the incident as ”an unprovoked attack on a US surveillance asset in international airspace”.

That asset cost a cool $130m (£103m) and has a wingspan larger than that of a Boeing 737 - a significant piece of kit.

Joe Sommerlad21 June 2019 08:56

The reaction among Democrats to the prospect of the US "bumbling" into another war in the Middle East - without even a permanent secretary of defence in place to oversee it - was understandably tense.

Joe Sommerlad21 June 2019 09:12

If you're coming into all of this late, here's where US Central Command said the drone went down.

Lieutenant General Joseph Guastella, the top US Air Force commander in the Middle East, said it was blasted at high altitude about 21 miles from the nearest point of land on the Iranian coast.

Iranian state media disputed this, saying the "spy" drone was brought down over the southern Iranian province of Hormozgan, which is on the Gulf, with a locally made 3 Khordad missile.

Foreign minister Javad Zarif accused the US of "economic terrorism", pledging to "zealously defend our skies, land and waters" in offering his own map of the flashpoint.

Washington said on Monday it would deploy about 1,000 more troops, along with Patriot missiles and manned and unmanned surveillance aircraft, to the Middle East on top of a 1,500-troop increase announced after attacks on the Gulf tankers in May.

Trump has dispatched forces including aircraft carriers, B-52 bombers and troops over the past few weeks.

Joe Sommerlad21 June 2019 09:31

Iran apparently received a message from President Trump via Oman overnight warning that a US attack was imminent, according to Reuters.

"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 Khamenei to decide about this issue," one of the Iranian officials told the news agency on condition of anonymity.

A 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."

Joe Sommerlad21 June 2019 09:38

Iran's defence minister Amir Hatami has accused the US of seeking to whip up "Iran phobia".

“Very complicated and suspicious conditions exist in the region,” he was quoted as saying by the Iranian Labour News Agency. “It seems that all of this is in line with an overall policy for creating Iran phobia and creating a consensus against the Islamic Republic.”

Joe Sommerlad21 June 2019 09:50

The US special representative for Iran, Brian Hook, met Saudi Arabia’s deputy defense minister Prince Khalid bin Salman in Riyadh on Friday, the minister tweeted.

They discussed recent attacks in the region which the United States and Saudi Arabia blame on Iran and Iran denies being behind. 

Prince Khalid affirmed Saudi support for the US campaign to pressure Tehran.

Joe Sommerlad21 June 2019 10:05

In the run up to last night's excitement, Iran released a video it claimed showed the moment a surface-to-air missile struck the navy drone.

Here's Chris Riotta and Clark Mindock with more.

Joe Sommerlad21 June 2019 10:20

Russia has accused the US of deliberately stoking dangerous tensions around Iran and pushing the situation to the brink of war, the RIA news agency reported.

Deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov called on Washington to weigh the possible consequences of conflict with Iran and cited the report in The New York Times as an indication the situation was extremely dangerous.

Joe Sommerlad21 June 2019 10:30

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