President Trump convened a classified national security briefing for congressional leaders Thursday under pressure to respond to Iran’s unprovoked shoot-down of a U.S. Navy drone, an attack that the president downplayed as an unintentional mistake by a “foolish” rogue Iranian military official.
With a top Senate Republican ally saying Mr. Trump faced “a defining moment,” the president vowed that he wouldn’t let Iran get away with destroying the $110 million unmanned surveillance aircraft Wednesday over the Strait of Hormuz in international airspace.
“They made a very bad mistake,” Mr. Trump told reporters. “This country will not stand for it.”
Asked whether he plans a military response, the president replied, “Obviously … we’re not going to be talking too much about it. You’re going to find out.”
The New York Times reported late Thursday night that the president ordered military strikes against Iranian Revolutionary Guard radar and missile batteries, but called off the attack at the last minute.
Reuters reported on Friday that Tehran had received a message from Mr. Trump, delivered through Oman, warning that a U.S. attack on Iran was imminent but saying he was against war and wanted talks on a range of 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 (Ayatollah Ali) Khamenei to decide about this issue,” an Iranian source told the news service.
With Democrats urging caution, the president met with lawmakers in both parties Thursday afternoon at the White House for a 90-minute briefing on the shoot-down and the possible U.S. response.
“I told the president that these conflicts have a way of escalating,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said after the meeting. “The president may not intend to go to war here, but we’re worried that he and the administration may bumble into the way.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said later in a message on Twitter that the U.S. is facing a “dangerous, high-tension situation” and that the administration must “do everything in our power to de-escalate.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California and three other GOP leaders said the U.S. must deliver a “measured response” to Iran’s actions.
In a meeting earlier in the day with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Mr. Trump seemed to be leaning against a robust military retaliation that could trigger further escalation against the primary U.S. adversary in the Middle East.
“We didn’t have a man or woman in the drone — it would have made a big, big difference,” Mr. Trump told reporters. “I imagine someone made a mistake. I find it hard to believe it was intentional.”
He said he believes the shoot-down was ordered by someone lower in the Iranian chain of command who was “loose and stupid.” The president called the episode “a new fly in the ointment” in long-running tensions with Tehran.
Mr. Trudeau said he was “very concerned” about the confrontation and wanted to discuss with Mr. Trump “how we can move forward as an international community.”
Iran shot down the Navy RQ-4A Global Hawk drone with a surface-to-air missile late Wednesday in an “unprovoked attack” over international waters, U.S. military officials said. U.S. Central Command said the drone was shot down over the Strait of Hormuz, a key international shipping channel for about 20% of the world’s oil exports.
Military officials denied claims from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that the aircraft crossed into Iranian airspace.
“Iranian reports that the aircraft was over Iran are false,” Navy Capt. Bill Urban, CENTCOM spokesman, said in a statement. “This was an unprovoked attack on a U.S. surveillance asset in international airspace.”
Iranian officials quickly seized on the incident to boast that the country is prepared for a military confrontation with the U.S.
“We do not have any intention for war with any country, but we are fully ready for war,” Islamic Revolutionary Guard commander Gen. Hossein Salami said in a televised address. “Borders are our red line. Any enemy that violates the borders will be annihilated.”
The Trump administration this year officially designated the Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization. It was the first time the U.S. used such a label for another country’s military force.
In shooting down the drone, Iran has escalated tensions for at least the third time in just one week.
Late last week, Iran allegedly used limpet mines to target two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. The U.S. Navy has released photos, video and physical evidence that it says proves Iran was responsible for the attacks.
Days later, top Iranian officials said their uranium stockpiles will soon break the threshold laid out in a multinational 2015 deal to limit their nuclear program. Mr. Trump pulled the U.S. out of the agreement last year.
Against that backdrop, Wednesday’s incident added to a volatile situation, and lawmakers and analysts fear Washington and Tehran are on an inevitable collision course.
“I’m convinced that as a last resort, President Trump will stop this behavior,” Mr. Graham said. “He’s a deal-maker. He’s trying to avoid conflict. But this is truly a defining moment for him.”
Mrs. Pelosi urged Mr. Trump to exercise caution.
“I think it’s a dangerous situation. The high tension wires are up in the region,” she told reporters. “We have to be strong and strategic about how we protect our interests. We also cannot be reckless in what we do. There’s no appetite to go to war in our country.”
Mr. Graham said the president has made clear to the Iranians that they cannot disrupt navigation or attack U.S. allies, such as the two oil ships struck by mines this week in international waters off the coast of Iran.
“If they get away with this, God help us with North Korea and throughout the world,” Mr. Graham said.
He said the president “believes we’re getting into a bad space, that his options are running out, that he’s not going to be intimidated to redo a nuclear deal that was terrible.”
The president seemed intent on emphasizing that he was seeking to avoid a broader military conflict.
Asked whether his advisers were pushing him toward military action, Mr. Trump said, “No, not at all. Not at all. In fact, in many cases, it’s the opposite.
“Look, I said I want to get out of these endless wars,” the president said. “I campaigned on that: I want to get out. We’ve been in Afghanistan for 19 years. As you know, we’ve reduced very substantially in Afghanistan.”
He spoke of defeating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and then “pulling a lot of [troops] back.”
In an interview with Time magazine published Thursday, the president also said it’s “rather ridiculous” that the U.S. is providing costly security for oil shipping in the Strait of Hormuz when most of the countries receiving oil from the Gulf region pay nothing to the U.S. for the protection. He said the U.S. no longer relies on the region for oil as much as other countries.
“You look at China, it’s a big beneficiary — they don’t pay anything,” he said. “Japan is a big beneficiary, they don’t pay anything. Many other countries come, they don’t pay anything. And we’re there keeping the world as, you know, we’re there keeping the oil flowing.”
The U.S. drone that was destroyed Wednesday was apparently conducting surveillance near the Strait of Hormuz, a passage that took on an even greater significance since the U.S. imposed a global oil embargo on Iran in April. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations promised to make up the difference in global oil supplies, and much of that oil will flow through the strait.
The incident Thursday was not Iran’s first shoot-down of an American drone. In 2011, Iranian forces said they downed an American RQ-170 Sentinel after it crossed into the country’s airspace.
In a separate incident Thursday, Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen reportedly fired missiles at a power plant in Saudi Arabia. Iranian proxy forces have been battling a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen since 2015.
⦁ Lauren Meier contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.
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