President Donald Trump ordered a military strike on Iranian targets in response to Tehran’s shooting down of a naval surveillance drone before reversing course, according to multiple US media outlets.
The New York Times said Mr Trump approved attacks on targets such as radar and missile installations and that US aircraft were en route when a decision was taken to abort the mission. The Washington Post and ABC News also reported the developments.
The news of possible military action against Iran emerged as the US Federal Aviation Administration issued an emergency notice barring US airlines from flying in airspace over parts of the Gulf because of heightened tensions following the drone incident on Thursday.
“All flight operations in the overwater area of the Tehran flight information region . . . above the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman only are prohibited until further notice due to heightened military activities and increased political tensions,” the FAA said.
Oil prices edged up on Friday with Brent crude rising 0.3 per cent to $64.59, having jumped 4.5 per cent on Thursday after the drone was shot down.
The FAA order came as United Airlines suspended its Mumbai-Newark flight that passes over Iran, citing safety concerns, in what is thought to be the first such move by a carrier following the drone incident.
Mr Trump had appeared to play down the significance of the Iranian attack earlier on Thursday, saying it was “hard to believe” it was intentional.
“It could have been somebody who was loose and stupid that did it . . . But it was a very foolish move,” he said while receiving Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, at the White House.
Those comments came just hours after he said in a tweet that Iran had made a “very big mistake”.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard said it fired on the drone after it “violated” Iranian airspace, but the Pentagon said the unmanned surveillance aircraft was flying in international airspace.
The drone shooting came a week after Washington accused Tehran of attacking two tankers in the Gulf of Oman. Iran has denied any involvement but the latest incident has raised concerns the US would respond with military action. Earlier this week Washington said it would send 1,000 more troops to the region.
The White House held a classified briefing for lawmakers on Thursday. Afterwards, Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives, urged the administration to work with allies and avoid taking a “reckless” approach to the crisis.
“This is a dangerous, high-tension situation that requires a strong, smart and strategic, not reckless, approach,” she said.
Chuck Schumer, the top Senate Democrat, said he told Mr Trump that he needed congressional approval for any attack on Iran. “The president may not intend to go to war here. But we’re worried that he and the administration may bumble into a war,” he said.
Some critics are worried that John Bolton, the hawkish national security adviser, was urging Mr Trump to strike Iran. Asked on Thursday if some of his team were pushing him into war, Mr Trump said that was not the case.
“Not at all. In fact, in many cases, it’s the opposite,” Mr Trump said. “I said I want to get out of these endless wars. I campaigned on that . . . But this is something, this is a new wrinkle . . . And this country will not stand for it.”
Tom Wright, a foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution, a think-tank, said Mr Trump “has been suspicious of John Bolton manipulating him into a war since he started and that suspicion remains today. He wants to squeeze Iran but seems not to want a war.”
The New York Times said the strikes were backed by Mr Bolton, CIA director Gina Haspel and secretary of state Mike Pompeo. The newspaper added that Pentagon officials were concerned an attack could lead to a dangerous escalation.
Lieutenant General Joseph Guastella, commander of US air forces in the Middle East, said the drone attack occurred “in the vicinity of established air corridors” and that the aircraft never flew closer than 34km from the Iranian coast.
US Central Command, which overseas US military operations in the region, said its Global Hawk high-altitude surveillance drone was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile over the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world’s most important shipping routes for oil and gas. Iran said the aircraft was shot down in the southern Iranian province of Hormuzgan, adjacent to the waterway.
When asked earlier how he would respond, Mr Trump said: “You’ll find out.”
The president added: “This drone was in international waters, clearly. We have it all documented scientifically, not just words. And they made a very bad mistake.”
The Pentagon released a map that it said showed the drone’s path from launch to where it was shot down, in an effort to prove it had not entered Iranian airspace.
Tehran criticised the US for what it said was a provocative action. General Hossein Salami, commander of the Revolutionary Guard, told Iranian state television that the downing of the drone “sent a clear message” to the US.
Majid Takht Ravanchi, Iran’s ambassador to the UN, wrote to secretary-general António Guterres, accusing the US military forces of an “unlawful and yet a very dangerous and provocative act” against the country’s integrity.
It stressed that Iran did not seek war but “reserves its inherent right . . . to take all appropriate necessary measures against any hostile act violating its territory, and is determined to vigorously defend its land, sea and air”.