Strikes on Iran Approved by Trump, Then Abruptly Pulled Back
During a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, President Trump responded to questions about Iran shooting down a United States surveillance drone.CreditCreditErin Schaff/The New York Times
WASHINGTON — President Trump approved military strikes against Iran in retaliation for downing an American surveillance drone, but pulled back from launching them on Thursday night after a day of escalating tensions.
As late as 7 p.m., military and diplomatic officials were expecting a strike, after intense discussions and debate at the White House among the president’s top national security officials and congressional leaders, according to multiple senior administration officials involved in or briefed on the deliberations.
Officials said the president had initially approved attacks on a handful of Iranian targets, like radar and missile batteries.
The operation was underway in its early stages when it was called off, a senior administration official said. Planes were in the air and ships were in position, but no missiles had been fired when word came to stand down, the official said.
The abrupt reversal put a halt to what would have been the president’s third military action against targets in the Middle East. Mr. Trump had struck twice at targets in Syria, in 2017 and 2018.
It was not clear whether Mr. Trump simply changed his mind on the strikes or whether the administration altered course because of logistics or strategy. It was also not clear whether the attacks might still go forward.
Asked about the plans for a strike and the decision to hold back, the White House declined to comment, as did Pentagon officials. No government officials asked The New York Times to withhold the article.
The retaliation plan was intended as a response to the shooting down of the unmanned, $130 million surveillance drone, which was struck Thursday morning by an Iranian surface-to-air missile, according to a senior administration official who was briefed on the military planning and spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential plans.
The strike was set to take place just before dawn Friday in Iran to minimize risk to the Iranian military and civilians. But military officials received word a short time later that the strike was off, at least temporarily.
The possibility of a retaliatory strike hung over Washington for much of the day. Officials in both countries traded accusations about the location of the drone when it was destroyed by a surface-to-air missile launched from the Iranian coast along the Gulf of Oman.
Mr. Trump’s national security advisers split about whether to respond militarily. Senior administration officials said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; John R. Bolton, the national security adviser; and Gina Haspel, the C.I.A. director, had favored a military response. But top Pentagon officials cautioned that such an action could result in a spiraling escalation with risks for American forces in the region.
Congressional leaders were briefed by administration officials in the Situation Room.
The destruction of the drone underscored the already tense relations between the two countries after Mr. Trump’s recent accusations that Iran is to blame for explosions last week that damaged oil tankers traveling through the strait, the vital waterway for much of the world’s oil. Iran has denied that accusation.
Iran’s announcement this week that it would soon breach one of the key limits it had agreed to in a 2015 pact intended to limit its nuclear program has also fueled tensions. Mr. Trump, who pulled the United States out of the 2015 pact, has vowed that he will not allow Tehran to build a nuclear weapon.
On Thursday, Mr. Trump insisted that the United States’ unmanned surveillance aircraft was flying over international waters when it was taken down by an Iranian missile.