Trump halted Iran strikes citing 150 possible deaths as disproportionate

  • 21 Jun 2019

US President Donald Trump says his country was "cocked and loaded" to hit three sites in Iran in response to downing of a US drone but he cancelled the attack after being told 150 people would die.

US President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, White House national security adviser John Bolton and Press Secretary Sarah Sanders look on in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, US, June 20, 2019. ( Reuters )

US President Donald Trump said on Friday the US was ready to retaliate against Iran for downing an unmanned American surveillance drone, but he cancelled the strikes 10 minutes before they were to be launched after being told 150 people could die.

"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."

Trump added that those deaths would not be a proportionate response to the downing of an unmanned drone.

"I am in no hurry," he said. "Sanctions are biting & more added last night. Iran can NEVER have Nuclear Weapons, not against the USA, and not against the WORLD!"

TRT World's Philip Owira reports.

UNSC meet

Also on Friday, US envoy for Iran Brian Hook said Iran must meet diplomacy with diplomacy.

''Our diplomacy does not give Iran the right to respond with military force, and Iran needs to meet diplomacy with diplomacy and not military force.''

In reaction to Hook's comments, Iranian foreign ministry spokesman, Abbas Mousavi, said Iran ''responds to diplomacy with diplomacy ... war with firm defence'' in a statement on his Twitter account.

US has, meanwhile, asked the United Nations Security Council to meet on Iran behind closed-doors on Monday, diplomats said.

"We will brief the council on the latest developments with regard to Iran and present further information from our investigation into the recent tanker incidents," the US mission to the UN said in a note to council colleagues, seen by Reuters news agency.

De-escalating tensions? 

Trump's tweeted statement was the latest indication that he does not want to escalate the US clash with Tehran. But he didn't rule out future strikes and insisted anew that the US would never allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon.

He said US economic sanctions are crippling the Iranian economy and more are being added.

After days of harsh words against the United States, Iran also seemed to be tamping down its rhetoric.

Gen Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the Revolutionary Guard's aerospace division, told reporters on Friday that a US spy plane with around 35 crew members was flying close to the unmanned US Navy RQ-4A Global Hawk that was shot down, but that Iran chose not to target the manned aircraft. 

Trump abruptly called off preparations for a military strike against Iran over the downing of a US surveillance drone after Iran claimed it had issued several warnings before shooting down the drone over what it said was Iranian territory.

The swift reversal was a reminder of the serious risk of military conflict between the US and Iranian forces as the Trump administration combines a "maximum pressure" campaign of economic sanctions with a buildup of American forces in the region. 

As tensions mounted in recent weeks, there have been growing fears that either side could make a dire miscalculation that led to war.

On Friday, Iran said it collected the debris from its territorial waters. 

"With the US drone in the region, there was also an American P-8 plane with 35 people on board. This plane also entered our airspace and we could have shot it down, but we did not," Hajizadeh said.

'Now they are Bust'

In a lengthy tweet, Trump defended his stance on Iran amid criticism from Democrats who accuse him of having no strategy. 

He said he pulled out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which gave Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for pledges to rein in its nuclear programme, because the agreement only temporarily blocked Iran from having nuclear weapons. 

Trump said the nuclear deal also did not stem Iran's support of militant groups or restrain its ballistic missile programme.

He said his exit from the deal and the re-imposition of sanctions on Iran has crippled its economy.

"Now they are Bust!" Trump tweeted and then outlined his reasons for canceling the strikes.

Head of Revolutionary Guard's aerospace division General Amir Ali Hajizadeh stands in front of what Iranian authorities described as pieces of the US Navy RQ-4A Global Hawk drone in Tehran, Iran. June 21, 2019.(AP)

Radar and missile battery in crosshairs

On Thursday, The New York Times reported that President Trump had approved the strikes Thursday night, but then called them off. The newspaper cited anonymous senior administration officials.

According to the official who spoke to The Associated Press, the strikes were recommended by the Pentagon and were among the options presented to senior administration officials.

The military operation was called off around 7:30 pm Washington time after Trump had spent most of Thursday discussing Iran strategy with top national security advisers and congressional leaders.

The US was planning to hit "a handful of Iranian targets, like radar and missile batteries" Thursday evening, the newspaper said, citing senior administration officials, but the plan was suddenly aborted in its early stages.

'Big mistake'

The president had tweeted after the downing of the drone that Iran made a "big mistake."

Asked about a US response to the attack, Trump said, "You'll soon find out."

Later he appeared to dial back tensions.

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

'Iran does not seek war'

Iran said it has "indisputable" evidence US drone violated its airspace and also released a video that apparently shows one of its missile bringing down a drone.

Deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi told Swiss ambassador, Markus Leitner, whose country represents US interests in Iran, of the evidence on Thursday night, the foreign ministry said in a statement.

"Even some parts of the drone's wreckage have been retrieved from Iran"s territorial waters," Araghchi told the Swiss envoy."

Araghchi urged US forces to "respect Iran's aerial and maritime borders and fully abide by international regulations," the ministry said.

He "reiterated that Iran does not seek a war and conflict in the Persian Gulf, warning the American forces against any unconsidered measure in the region," it added.

"The Islamic Republic of Iran would not hesitate for a moment to decisively defend its territory against any aggression," the statement quoted Araghchi as saying.

Maritime security

Indian officials said their navy has deployed two warships to the Gulf of Oman.

Indian navy spokesman Dalip Kumar Sharma said the ships Chennai and Sunayna have deployed to the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman to undertake maritime security operations, escort Indian merchant ships and "coordinate between stakeholders."

Indian military aircraft are also conducting aerial surveillance in the area.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has reached out to foreign leaders to convince them that the apparent attacks on the key Mideast shipping route is a problem for the world at large. 

Recent attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf have been blamed on Iran. Iran has denied these accusations.

Iran is India's third-largest source of imported oil. Pompeo is visiting India next Tuesday, ahead of G20 talks in Osaka, Japan.

Airlines avoiding Iranian airspace

Meanwhile, major airlines including Emirates, British Airway, Qantas, KLM, Lufthansa and FlyDubai said they will avoid Iranian airspace.

The announcements came after the US barred American-registered aircraft from flying over parts of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.

The FAA previously warned commercial aircraft of the possibility of Iranian anti-aircraft gunners mistaking them for military aircraft, something dismissed by Tehran some 30 years after the US Navy shot down an Iranian passenger jet.

The FAA said this would affect the area of the Tehran Flight Information Region. 

It wasn't immediately clear if that included the entire Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman as different countries also maintain their own flight controls in the region. The FAA's operations centre referred questions to its press office, which did not immediately respond.

According to flight tracking applications, the FAA said, the nearest civil aircraft was operating within about 45 nautical miles of the unmanned aircraft when it was shot down.

"There were numerous civil aviation aircraft operating in the area at the time of the intercept," the FFA said, adding that its prohibition would stay in place until further notice.

There was no immediate reaction in Iran to the announcement.

The Persian Gulf is home to some of the world's top long-haul carriers, who already have been battered by Trump's travel bans targeting a group of predominantly Muslim countries, as well as an earlier ban on laptops in airplane cabins for Mideast carriers.