WASHINGTON — President Trump said Friday he abruptly canceled a planned U.S. missile strike against three Iranian targets “10 minutes before” it was set to launch because he was told the raid would likely kill 150 Iranians.
“We were cocked & loaded to retaliate last night on 3 different sights,” Trump tweeted. “When I asked, how many will die. 150 people, sir, was the answer from a General.”
The aborted U.S. attack was planned in retaliation for the Iranian shoot-down before dawn Thursday of an unarmed U.S. military surveillance drone near the Strait of Hormuz, a crucial waterway for oil shipping.
Iran said it launched a ground-to-air missile because the unmanned aircraft was in its airspace, while the Pentagon said the jet-powered Navy drone was hit over international waters. Both sides offered competing maps and videos to buttress their claims.
Trump argued that the planned U.S. retaliation was “not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone.” He suggested that he would not reverse his decision anytime soon, and that the U.S. was adding economic sanctions instead.
“I am in no hurry, our Military is rebuilt, new, and ready to go, by far the best in the world,” he wrote. “Sanctions are biting & more added last night.”
Trump’s last-minute pullback was hailed by those who feared U.S. airstrikes would soon escalate into an armed conflict with Iran, and criticized by those — including some Republicans — who compared his second-guessing to President Obama’s decision not to use force in Syria in 2012.
Trump sharply criticized Obama for drawing a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons by pro-government forces in Syria’s civil war, and then backing away from retaliating when gas attacks killed several hundred people in 2012.
Trump’s only known authorized use of military force has been in Syria, where he twice approved limited missile strikes in response to poison gas attacks on civilians.
The president revealed his decision in a series of striking tweets that purported to outline his thinking and decisions in the latest flare-up with Iran.
In public comments on Thursday, the president emphasized that “it would have made a big difference” if Iran had downed a piloted aircraft or caused U.S. casualties.
He also said Thursday that Iran’s missile launch was probably unintentional and “a mistake,” giving Tehran breathing room in the tense standoff even though senior Iranian officials and commanders made clear the attack was deliberate.
It would be unusual for a president to ask only in the late planning stages of a military strike about the number of potential casualties.
Trump did not officially declare a red line for Iran but has used bellicose language, frequently citing the Islamic regime as a destabilizing and malicious force in the Middle East.
After Trump’s tweet, Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, tweeted that “a war with Iran would be a disaster and lead to endless conflict in the region.”
He said “Congress must assert its constitutional authority and stop Trump from going to war.”
While Trump’s decision could quell such criticism, it also runs the risk of making him look indecisive in the face of what the Pentagon has called an unprovoked attack in international airspace.
Trump, pushing back against hawks inside and outside his administration, insisted that Iran was fundamentally weakened by the tight web of sanctions his administration has imposed in the 13 months since he pulled out of the 2015 multinational agreement intended to halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
“Iran can NEVER have Nuclear Weapons, not against the USA, and not against the WORLD!,” Trump tweeted.
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