President Donald Trump authorized a retaliatory airstrike against Iran Thursday in response to Tehran’s shooting down an unmanned surveillance drone, but, with the planes in the air and ships in position, the operation was at the last minute called off, the New York Times reports. The operation was underway with administration officials still expecting an attack to be carried out well into Thursday evening after a day of escalating tensions. The military strike was reported to focus on several proportional targets in Iran, such as radar and missile batteries, and was timed to minimize the risk to civilians and the Iranian military, which would have been a significant escalation.
It’s unclear what prompted Trump to abort the mission, which would have been his third military operation in the region but by far his most significant. Trump administration officials told multiple outlets that there was still a possibility such a strike would be carried out in the future. Trump, for his part, appeared to offer an offramp Thursday afternoon as the standoff appeared set to spiral into a military skirmish. After tweeting “Iran made a very big mistake!” Thursday morning, a clear provocation, later in the day Trump suggested the drone attack may have been an error, conducted without the approval of the regime in Tehran. Trump also attempted to minimize the significance of the attack, emphasizing there were no American casualties, which, he said, would have made “a big, big difference.”
On Friday morning, Trump explained why he decided against the airstrikes at the last minute.
“Iran’s ability to target and destroy the high-altitude American drone, which was developed to evade the very surface-to-air missiles used to bring it down, surprised some Defense Department officials, who interpreted it as a show of how difficult Tehran can make things for the United States as it deploys more troops and steps up surveillance in the region,” the Times reports. James G. Stavridis, who retired as a four-star admiral after serving as the supreme allied commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, warned that the two countries were in a dangerous game that could quickly spiral out of control. He described Iran’s downing of the drone, which costs about $130 million, as a “logical albeit highly dangerous escalatory move by Iran.’”
This post has been updated with Trump’s tweets about the decision to call off the airstrikes.