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Trump’s account of planning, then canceling strikes on Iran is facing scrutiny

  • Author: John Hudson, Missy Ryan, Erin Cunningham, The Washington Post
  • Updated: June 21
  • Published June 20

President Donald Trump on Friday described a nail-biting decision to call off an imminent attack on Iran in order to avoid disproportionate casualties, but the account is already facing scrutiny from aides around him and military analysts questioning the sequence of events he laid out in tweets and statements.

President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the Oval Office of the White House, Thursday, June 20, 2019, in Washington. Trump declared Thursday that ’Iran made a very big mistake ’ in shooting down a U.S. drone but suggested it was an accident rather than a strategic error. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Early in the day, the president said he called off the counterattack at the last minute because it would kill 150 people in retaliation for the downing of an unmanned surveillance drone. "We were cocked & loaded to retaliate last night on 3 different sights when I asked, how many will die," he tweeted.

But administration officials said Trump was told earlier Thursday how many casualties could occur if a strike on Iran was carried out, and that he had given the green light to prepare for the operation Thursday morning.

The confusion reinforced concerns about the Trump administration's credibility at a time when key U.S. allies are already questioning its narrative about Iran's culpability for a recent spate of attacks on oil tankers.

The decision has divided his top advisers with senior Pentagon officials opposing the decision to strike and national security adviser John Bolton strongly supporting it.

Iran said Friday that the United States had "no justification" for a retaliatory strike and vowed to respond "firmly" to any U.S. military action.

Trump’s morning tweets appeared to gloss over the fact that he was the one, as commander in chief, who had ordered the retaliation against Iran in the first place.

Trump administration officials, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive national security decisions, said the president approved the strikes after Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps earlier in the day shot down the Navy RQ-4 Global Hawk, a move Trump described as a "very big mistake."

But he later changed his mind, the officials said.

Head of the Revolutionary Guard's aerospace division Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh looks at debris from what the division describes as the U.S. drone which was shot down on Thursday, in Tehran, Iran, Friday, June 21, 2019. Major airlines from around the world on Friday began rerouting their flights to avoid areas around the Strait of Hormuz following Iran's shooting down of a U.S. military surveillance drone there, as America warned commercial airliners could be mistakenly attacked. Hajizadeh said on Friday, Iran had warned a U.S. military surveillance drone several times before launching a missile at it. (Meghdad Madadi/Tasnim News Agency/via AP)

The commander of the Revolutionary Guard's aerospace division said Friday that Iran had sent "warnings" to the drone before shooting it down. In an interview with Iran's state-controlled broadcaster, Brig. Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh said a final warning was sent at 3:55 a.m. local time Thursday.

"When it did not redirect its route and continued flying toward and into our territory, we had to shoot it at 4:05 a.m.," he said. "Our national security is a red line."

He said Iran refrained from also shooting down a U.S. P-8 patrol aircraft, with 35 people on board, that he asserted had accompanied the drone into Iranian airspace. His claim could not immediately be verified.

A senior U.S. defense official said Friday morning that the Pentagon had Navy assets poised to strike in Iran if directed, including ships accompanying the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln. Those attacks could have included airstrikes with jets, or - more likely - Tomahawk cruise missiles, the official said.

Trump's initial tweets suggested that he had canceled his own order: "10 minutes before the strike I stopped it," he said. But in an interview with NBC's Chuck Todd for "Meet the Press," the president said he hadn't given final approval to any strikes and that no planes were in the air.

"Nothing was green lighted until the very end because things change," Trump said in the interview.

In his Twitter posts Friday morning, Trump wrote that "sanctions are biting & more added last night." However, the Treasury Department did not add any new sanctions against Iran on Thursday night.

There was also confusion about how the United States and Iran were communicating during the crisis at a time when the two adversaries have very few diplomatic contacts.

The Reuters news agency reported Friday that Iranian officials said they received a message from Trump through Oman overnight warning that a U.S. attack was imminent.

When asked about the report, a senior U.S. administration official said the United States never sent a message to Iran via the Omanis. The country at the eastern corner of the Arabian peninsula has long been an interlocutor between the West and Iran, but not on this occasion, the official said.

"It is a complete lie and propaganda from Iran," the official said.

Earlier Friday, the head of Iranian media services also told NBC News that the Reuters report was inaccurate. He said such a message from the United States was never sent and the content of the messages is also false.

The Federal Aviation Administration late Thursday barred U.S.-registered aircraft from operating over the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman, due to an increase in military activities and political tensions that it said might "place commercial flights at risk."

Several U.S. and international carriers said that they had either canceled flights over Iranian airspace or were taking steps to avoid the Strait of Hormuz.

Protesters hold signs spelling out, ’No War, ’ outside the White House, Thursday June 20, 2019, in Washington, after President Donald Trump tweeted that ’Iran made a very big mistake ’ by shooting down a U.S. surveillance drone over the Strait of Hormuz in Iran. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

The day's events have left lawmakers in both parties confused about whether the United States remains on the precipice of a military conflict or if an imminent crisis had been averted.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Friday that she was not informed of Trump's plans to strike Iran but described the latest events as a "dangerous, high-tension situation."

While Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., expressed confidence in the president, several hawks in Congress said the only appropriate response would be a swift military counter-strike.

"They're trying to break our will and intimidate us to come to the negotiating table," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said of the Iranians.

Trump's comments on Thursday also left room for questions about how his administration planned to respond to Iran. Immediately following the drone's downing, he tweeted that "Iran made a mistake."

But Trump said he found it "hard to believe" that the attack on the drone "was intentional" on the part of Iran's top officials. He also noted that the aircraft was unmanned. "There was no man or woman in it," he said. "It would have made a big difference" if a plane carrying people had been shot down. "It would have made a big, big difference."

Iran's strike on the U.S. drone Thursday followed a number of recent incidents, including attacks on tankers, that American officials have depicted as part of an Iranian effort to hurt the United States and its allies in the region. The United States has continued its "maximum pressure" campaign against a country the Trump administration has identified as its main adversary in the Middle East.

Tehran has responded with defiance to the campaign, which was launched after Trump withdrew the United States from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and has included designating the Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist group and taking steps to cut off Iranian oil sales.

On Thursday, the European Union said officials from Germany, Britain, France, Russia, China and Iran would meet next week to discuss strategies to salvage the nuclear pact despite renewed U.S. sanctions and Tehran's threat to exceed limits on its uranium stockpiles.

Saudi Arabia's deputy defense minister said Friday on Twitter that he met with Brian Hook, the State Department's special representative for Iran, in Riyadh "to explore the latest efforts to counter hostile Iranian acts."

Hook called Friday for measures to "de-escalate" the tense situation with Iran. He told a news conference in the Saudi capital, "Our diplomacy does not give Iran the right to respond with military force; Iran needs to meet our diplomacy with diplomacy and not military force," Reuters reported. "It's important we do everything we can to de-escalate."

The Revolutionary Guard's top commander, Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami, called the downing of the drone "a clear message to America."

The done incident occurred the week after two tankers, one Japanese and one Norwegian, were attacked in the Gulf of Oman. The Trump administration has blamed Iran for both incidents, at least one of which is said to have been carried out by use of limpet mine similar to devices previously displayed at Iranian military parades. Iran has denied involvement, calling the accusation "a lie."

The tanker incidents were similar to an attack on a tanker off the United Arab Emirates in May. The U.S. military also accused Iran of firing a modified SA-7 surface-to-air missile at an MQ-9 Reaper drone over the Gulf of Oman as it surveilled the attack on the Japanese ship.

Also this month, Centcom said Houthi rebels shot down an MQ-9 over Yemen using an SA-6 surface-to-air missile in an attack that "was enabled by Iranian assistance."

The latest incident came just days before acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan was due to step down. Shanahan, who this week withdrew from his confirmation process after news media, including The Washington Post, published reports about past family strife, is handing responsibility for the military to Mark Esper, who now serves as Army secretary.

It is unclear how the turnover at the top of the Pentagon will affect an internal debate about how to respond to what officials say is an attempt to strike American interests. Some defense officials have voiced concerns that officials led by national security adviser John Bolton, who has publicly advocated regime change in Iran in the past, may be creating conditions in which war is inevitable.

Trump has previously authorized targeted strikes in the Middle East, including on government-controlled air bases in Syria. He was elected in 2016 promising to end American involvement in conflicts in the region.

At the same time, the Pentagon remains concerned about the potential for Iranian attacks on U.S. military personnel, especially those stationed in Iraq. During a visit to Baghdad last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sought to relay a message for Iranian leaders that even one American death would result in a U.S. counterattack.

A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said U.S. naval assets were trying to recover pieces of the drone.

The strike on the RQ-4 is much more significant than the recent attacks on Reapers. Each Global Hawk, which has a wingspan of 131 feet, is worth more than $100 million and is packed with sensors and able to fly at altitudes of more than 55,000 feet to observe broad areas for periods that can stretch longer than a day.

The Global Hawk downed on Thursday was an older "demonstrator" model, according to another U.S. official, that had been transferred from the Air Force to the Navy to carry out a mission known as Broad Area Maritime Surveillance. The Pentagon has since begun testing a newer cousin, the MQ-4C Triton. Neither version carries weapons.

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Hudson and Ryan reported from Washington. Cunningham reported from Dubai. The Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey, Dan Lamothe, William Branigin, Damian Paletta, and Karoun Demirjian in Washington contributed to this report.

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