U.S. Was Poised To Strike Iran Last Night, Then Trump Pulled Back

The planes were apparently in the air, and the ships in position, for an American attack on Iran last night. Then the order to pull back came in.

The New York Times is reporting that the United States was poised to strike Iran in apparent retaliation for the downing of an American reconnaissance drone earlier this week as well as attacks against oil tankers, but then the attack was abruptly called off:

President Trump approved military strikes against Iran in retaliation for downing an American surveillance drone, but pulled back from launching them on Thursday night after a day of escalating tensions.

As late as 7 p.m., military and diplomatic officials were expecting a strike, after intense discussions and debate at the White House among the president’s top national security officials and congressional leaders, according to multiple senior administration officials involved in or briefed on the deliberations.

Officials said the president had initially approved attacks on a handful of Iranian targets, like radar and missile batteries.

The operation was underway in its early stages when it was called off, a senior administration official said. Planes were in the air and ships were in position, but no missiles had been fired when word came to stand down, the official said.

The abrupt reversal put a halt to what would have been the president’s third military action against targets in the Middle East. Mr. Trump had struck twice at targets in Syria, in 2017 and 2018.

It was not clear whether Mr. Trump simply changed his mind on the strikes or whether the administration altered course because of logistics or strategy. It was also not clear whether the attacks might still go forward.

Asked about the plans for a strike and the decision to hold back, the White House declined to comment, as did Pentagon officials. No government officials asked The New York Times to withhold the article.

The retaliation plan was intended as a response to the shooting down of the unmanned, $130 million surveillance drone, which was struck Thursday morning by an Iranian surface-to-air missile, according to a senior administration official who was briefed on the military planning and spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential plans.

The strike was set to take place just before dawn Friday in Iran to minimize risk to the Iranian military and civilians.

(…)

The possibility of a retaliatory strike hung over Washington for much of the day. Officials in both countries traded accusations about the location of the drone when it was destroyed by a surface-to-air missile launched from the Iranian coast along the Gulf of Oman.

Mr. Trump’s national security advisers split about whether to respond militarily. Senior administration officials said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; John R. Bolton, the national security adviser; and Gina Haspel, the C.I.A. director, had favored a military response. But top Pentagon officials cautioned that such an action could result in a spiraling escalation with risks for American forces in the region.

Congressional leaders were briefed by administration officials in the Situation Room.

The destruction of the drone underscored the already tense relations between the two countries after Mr. Trump’s recent accusations that Iran is to blame for explosions last week that damaged oil tankers traveling through the strait, the vital waterway for much of the world’s oil. Iran has denied that accusation.

Earlier in the day, during a press availability with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Trump hinted at the possibility of retaliation but also appeared to leave open the possibility that the strike against the drone may not have been approved by higher-ranking Iranian officials:

On Thursday, Mr. Trump insisted that the United States’ unmanned surveillance aircraft was flying over international waters when it was taken down by an Iranian missile.

“This drone was in international waters, clearly,” the president told reporters on Thursday afternoon at the White House as he began a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada. “We have it all documented. It’s documented scientifically, not just words.”

Asked what would come next, Mr. Trump said, “Let’s see what happens.”

Iran’s government fiercely disputed the president’s characterization, insisting that the American drone had strayed into Iranian airspace. Iran released GPS coordinates that put the drone eight miles off the country’s coast, inside the 12 nautical miles from the shore that Iran claims as its territorial waters.

But in his public appearance, Mr. Trump initially seemed to be looking for a way to avoid a potentially serious military crisis. Instead of directly accusing the leaders of Iran, Mr. Trump said someone “loose and stupid” in Iran was responsible for shooting down the drone.

The president said he suspected it was some individual in Iran who “made a big mistake,” even as Iran had taken responsibility for the strike and asserted that the high-altitude American drone was operating over Iranian air space, which American officials denied.

Mr. Trump said the episode would have been far more serious if the aircraft had been a piloted vehicle, and not a drone. It made “a big, big difference” that an American pilot was not threatened, he told reporters.

This interchange took place in the early afternoon on Thursday, at a time when the military was likely moving forward with plans for the attack that was ultimately called off, although it is unclear if the President had made up his mind about the attack at that point. In any event, these comments seem to suggest that the Administration was perhaps looking for a way out of the crisis created by the downing of the drone that would allow the President to avoid military action without appearing to be weak in Iranian eyes and perhaps lead them to take more provocative action. In any case, given the timing it was clear that the initial “go” order was given at some point before or after the appearance with Trudeau and that it wasn’t until several hours later that the mission was called off.

What’s not clear from the report is what the basis might have been for backing away from the brink at what seems as though it was literally the last minute. Was there a logistical problem with the attack plan that we don’t know about, for example? Or, perhaps a question regarding the exact location that the U.S. drone was in when it was attacked? Or, did the President simply act from whim or self-doubt and ended up changing his mind? Of all the possibilities the last one seems to be the least likely, to be honest. Say what you will about Trump, but self-doubt and reflection do not seem to be words that are appropriate in describing him. So far, the White House isn’t commenting on the matter, but it’s also worth noting that no government officials asked the Times to withhold this from publication for some reason. This raises the possibility that the entire episode was designed to send Iran a message that further attacks on American forces, especially an attack on a manned plane or vessel, would bring more serious retaliation.

Daniel Larison notes that it’s a good thing that Trump back away from a plan that likely would have significantly increased tensions in the Persian Gulf, but reminds us that backing away never should have been necessary:

It is good that the president called off the insane plan to attack Iran, but there should never have been anything to call off. It is better that the president reversed himself at the last minute, but why was the reversal necessary? I said earlier that we would remain on the knife’s edge as long as Trump was committed to his bankrupt Iran policy, and tonight we can see just how thin the blade of that knife is. We very narrowly dodged the bullet of starting a war with Iran tonight, and it would have been a war started for the stupidest of reasons.

We happened to get lucky that Trump’s changeable nature worked in favor of stopping an illegal attack on Iran for the moment, but there is no telling if that will hold for more than a few days. The fact that Trump had previously signed off on an unauthorized and unnecessary military operation is a damning indictment of his judgment and proof of his contempt for the Constitution and Congress.

I agree with Larison that it was a good thing that this attack was apparently called off at the last minute, regardless of what the reason for that decision was. It’s been some thirty years, during a similar crisis over attacks in shipping in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, that the U.S. last hit Iran militarily, and that was a relatively minor attack aimed at removing some of the locations that the Iranians were using to threaten shipping back then. This time, the attacks on ships appear to be due to mines rather than rocket attacks, and while that is equally as serious given the American and international interests involved in keeping the shipping lanes free and clear, it’s of a slightly different nature than launching anti-ship missiles at vessels. In any event, this pause in the attack gives both sides a chance to step back and consider the implications of further escalation and what that could mean for the region and the world.

Larison also goes on to note that any such attack without Congressional authorization would be illegal:

It is not up to the president to launch an attack against another state. Trump had no authority to order an attack. This episode is a good example of why the decision on when and where the U.S. goes to war is not entrusted to the arbitrary whims of a single man. The Constitution gives Congress the authority to decide such things, and only they can make that decision. This near-miss gives new urgency to the effort in Congress to repeal the 2001 AUMF and to block any funds for U.S. military action against Iran. The president’s advisers evidently prevailed on him to order an attack, and if they can do it once they can presumably do it again. The reversal tonight is at best temporary, and we would be extremely foolish to think that Trump has the fortitude or desire to withstand the pressure to escalate that the rest of his administration is putting on him.

As a matter of law, Larison is of course completely correct. Without Congressional authorization, the President currently has no legal authority to launch an attack on Iran like the one that was canceled at the last minute last night. Allegedly, the Iran hawks inside the Administration, specifically including National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have come up with the an argument that an attack on Iran would be justified by the eighteen-year-old Authorization for Use of Military Force that was passed by Congress in the wake of the September 11th attacks. This same AUMF has been used by both the Obama and Trump Administrations to justify American action against ISIS as well as troop deployments and other military action in nation stretching from Yemen to Central Africa.

As I have noted in the past, that particular argument is absurdly flimsy when applied to ISIS and it would be utterly ridiculous to interpret the AUMF as authorizing attacks against Iran some 18 years after it was passed. In any case, this legal argument is apparently why we heard earlier this week about Administration attempts to draw a connection between Iran and al Qaeda, a connection that has no basis in reality. Notwithstanding all of that, as James Joyner noted just yesterday, if the Administration wanted to move forward with an attack without prior Congressional authorization there is very little that Congress can do about it.

In any case, it’s unclear where things go from here. We could see the President change his mind again and allow the attacks to go forward notwithstanding how unwise and unjustified such an attack would be, for example. For whatever it’s worth, though, there are reports this morning that American officials have sent word through middlemen that the U.S. is prepared to talk to Iranian representatives in an effort to cool down tensions in the region. Whether that is genuine, and whether the Iranians would be willing to talk, remains to be seen.

As they say, stay tuned.

Update: In a series of tweets this morning, President Trump appeared to explain what happened last night:

Left unstated is whether the President would be open to a more proportionate response.

FILED UNDER: General
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. CSK says:

    Trump has often said that he likes to be unpredictable and keep people “off balance.” Maybe this current action is a manifestation of that.

    Or his current principal advisor Tucker Carlson talked him out of it.

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  2. Jc says:

    He saw the markets today and didn’t want to rock the boat. Oil shot up on the drone. Imagine what it would do with a US attack. Might also rattle the stock markets, which are running on a sugar high from nonsense fed. I think a lot of Trumps foreign policy is basically how does this affect my pocketbook, my image and my “allies”

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  3. Teve says:

    Peter Beinart
    @PeterBeinart
    ·
    8h
    Even if you’re a hawk who thinks wars in the Middle East tend to go well. That’s insane but let’s go with it for a second. Even if you believe that. This White House can barely issue press releases without spelling mistakes. You really think they can manage a war?

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  4. rachel says:

    Vladdie told him not to.

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  5. Barry says:

    “This time, the attacks on ships appear to be due to mines rather than rocket attacks, …”

    Note that there is zero evidence that Iran was behind those attacks, and massive reasons to suspect Israel and Saudi Arabia.

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  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    U.S. Was Poised To Strike Iran Last Night, Then Trump Pulled Back

    Says who?

    Officials said the president had initially approved attacks on a handful of Iranian targets, like radar and missile batteries.

    Officials? trump admin officials? The same officials who lie every time they open their mouths? Who gas light as a profession? Why would we believe that any of this has any relation to the truth?

    Far far far far more likely:

    Bolton: You have to attack Iran.
    trump: Maybe I should talk to my Secretary of Defense first?
    Bolton: You don’t have one.
    trump: Oh yeah… OK, done!
    Bolton leaves Oval office. Pompeo walks in.
    Pompeo: Maybe we could just say you did. The press will report it anyway and your base will be hugely impressed with your muscle flexing.
    trump: OK, done.
    Pompeo leaves Oval Office. Mulvaney walks in.
    Mulvaney: How ’bout this: We say you ordered an attack (that will show how manly you are) then cancelled it because you wanted to show restraint.
    trump: OK, done.
    Mulvaney leaves office. trump turns on FOX news. Knocking at door.
    trump: GO AWAY! I’M HAVING EXECUTIVE TIME!

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  7. Teve says:
  8. Kathy says:

    Is it madness to try to decipher a madman’s’ motivation?

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  9. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Fuqing incompetence.
    Get back into the JCOPA, and work to strengthen it.
    That’s the competent path.

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  10. Teve says:

    I haven’t looked into it in any detail but people are saying that Putin warned Trump off.

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  11. KM says:

    What are the chances this was pulled because the drone was actually in Iran’s airspace like they claim and the Admin belatedly realized that could be proven?

    Right now their excuse to attack is flimsy AF since they can’t solidly prove the tanker attackers were Iranian. Their video was a bust and the world looks at us sideways. We weren’t attacked so why are we pitching a fit? The war hawks thought they had something with this drone takedown and told Trump it was in international waters to seal the deal…. only to have somebody freak out and note that evidence otherwise would make us the warlike aggressors and kill off any chance of alliances and war profiteering. They need a clean war to look all righteous for regime-change and making that sweet, sweet nation building money.

    Trump’s gullible but I bet someone with more than 2 brains cells told him that (a) satellites are a thing and other nations will have the coordinates for the takedown and (b) he’ll be handing over a prime reason for impeachment that’s not tied to the Mueller report. Even his base is iffy on this one so impeachment based on an unjustified, economy killing, we-shot-first war wouldn’t be as enraging. My bet is someone stopped to think for 2 seconds, went “Oh sh^t” and it got called off for purely political CYA.

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  12. Kathy says:

    @KM:

    What are the chances this was pulled because the drone was actually in Iran’s airspace like they claim and the Admin belatedly realized that could be proven?

    as good an explanation as any, as the most transparent administration in the history of the WORLD! clams up or spews utter nonsense.

    Did you see Dennison’s twit where he claims he asked, while the attack was unfolding, how many would die, then decided 150 people were “not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone”?

    Who the hell buys into this BS? Who would believe, or approve, of someone in Dennison’s position not even asking, or being told, about enemy casualties until the attack was already proceeding?

    It’s just as likely he realized the cost in munitions would be higher than the value of the drone; or that Iran had their defenses fully staffed and on high alert, and thus were likely to shoot down one or more US fighters; or maybe that the ratings he was expecting for news of the attack wouldn’t be high enough.

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  13. Slugger says:

    I applaud the decision to forgo retaliation and stand with President Trump on this. Thank you, Sir.

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  14. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    The idiot even said “cocked and loaded”…not “locked and loaded”
    Holy malapropism, Batman. (Maybe he was thinking of his little bitty Mario Kart – Toad dick.)
    The C-in-C is fuqing clueless.

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  15. gVOR08 says:

    More likely someone told him either that there might be American casualties, or worse, a prisoner; or pointed out it’s too soon, it’ll be forgotten by the election.

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  16. JohnMcC says:

    @Jc: I’m totally without a clue in regards to the reason the attack was mounted. I’m also totally lost as to why it was cancelled. But oil prices have not ‘spiked’. The past 6 or 8 weeks they hung around the $52–54 range. After the tanker explosions and the drone shoot-down, they’re up to $57.

    Just sayin…

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  17. Trump tweeted this morning what he says are the reasons behind the decision to call off the strike. I’ve posted those tweets in an update.

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  18. KM says:

    @Doug Mataconis :
    And what a stupid explanation it was. Is he seriously admitting he didn’t ask about the possibility of causalities until just before killing people? I know he thinks it makes him look “compassionate” for not killing people over unarmed tech but my god, this tweet just shows him as a lazy, inattentive psycho asking what the score would be! I want to give him credit for not starting anything but the explanation behind it confirms everything negative anyone’s ever said about his thought processes.

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  19. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    The idiot even said “cocked and loaded”…not “locked and loaded”

    He may have meant that he was “mocked, and bloated”

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  20. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Just seen on Twitter:

    When you are having a bad day, just imagine Dennison trying to pick up a grapefruit with one hand.

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  21. gVOR08 says:

    @Doug Mataconis: You needed to add his latest tweets for completeness. But except for whatever window they open into his psychology, they add nothing to understanding what happened in the real world. Whatever really happened, he wants it both ways, credit for being tough and credit for being compassionate. More likely the Schmuk in Chief just chickened out.

    But it’s working for them. TV’s on in the background and the talking heads are talking about Iranian provocations with no quibbles about whether things really as presented.

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  22. Gustopher says:

    Well, whatever the rationale was, and whatever was going on behind the scenes, I’m glad that we didn’t attack last night. This would have been stupid.

    Perhaps if Trump really doesn’t want war with Iran, he should fire Bolton. Remove the advisor whose advice is always “attack Iran” no matter what the situation is.

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  23. Kathy says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    Fuqing incompetence.
    Get back into the JCOPA, and work to strengthen it.
    That’s the competent path.

    I don’t think that would work now. Would you trust Dennison not to withdraw again? Or to abide by the terms of the JCPOA?

    With luck, a war can be avoided between now and November 2020, and then Iran might be willing to deal with a Democrat in the White House. If war breaks out, and Iran is also pushing for one, or America reelects el Cheeto Loco, then settle down for high oil prices, deep recession, and a new river of blood in the region.

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  24. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @gVOR08: Meh. Maybe, just this once he saw that Chicken Hawk, Sunshine Patriot, and Torture Girl were in favor whereas people who actually fought wars were not, connected the dots, and got the balloon picture rather than the Rorschach blot. In any event, he made a rare wise choice and the country is better off.

    For today…

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  25. dazedandconfused says:

    @Teve:

    Putin likely advised he back off but there is no evidence of contact. Trump gets most of his information from another source anyway. FOX last night exhibited significant lack of enthusiasm for a new war. He changed his mind about that time of the evening. I think it more likely FOX warned him off.

    Humorous aside…
    https://scontent-frx5-1.cdninstagram.com/vp/2a36b62be3205e03e650e550f8922eee/5D930B7F/t51.2885-15/e35/64894083_385051845453438_1161563246196538557_n.jpg?_nc_ht=scontent-frx5-1.cdninstagram.com
    FOX is our current NSC.

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  26. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Kathy:

    With luck, a war can be avoided between now and November 2020, and then Iran might be willing to deal with a Democrat in the White House.

    Why? Because making deals with the DEM in the white house worked out so well for them the last… Oooopps, I meant this time around?

    I suspect the lesson the Iranians have learned from this is, “Don’t make deals with the devil.”

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  27. michael reynolds says:

    I imagine what the Mullahs will conclude is that Trump has ‘buck fever.’ I’d be a bit leery of flying any drones within range of Iranian SAMs.

    I was talking to a Brit socialist the other day, explaining that we don’t elect presidents who won’t drop a bomb. It’s the commander-in-chief threshold. First an impetuous rush to attack, then a pathetic stand-down which he then tries to pass off as a concern for human lives. So what’s our response on the next drone?

    He’s afraid of confrontation, always has been. He won’t fire people face-to-face. He won’t talk back to Putin, MBS, Bibi or even Kim. He tried to get out of Afghanistan only to have the generals overrule him. He has to flee the room and hide behind signs when he’s faced by Nancy Pelosi. He’s a full-time apologist for every two-bit thug, and likes to bluster and threaten but but it’s all talk with this guy. The only people he’s willing to stand up to are allies and sycophants – people unable to challenge him, to risk displeasing him. I’d say he’s a classic bully, but he’s more like the parental version of a bully, a guy who is secretly a coward. Real bullies aren’t generally cowards.

    It’s fascinating. He has such a gift for spotting and exploiting weakness, and God knows he’s found an entire political party without a spine amongst them, but he’s very weak at closing the deal, at actually imposing his will on anyone with a shred of courage. No wonder he hates McCain. Trump knows that he is a coward.

    I wonder who’ll be best able to take him down in a debate? Someone with a spine, someone with self-control and gravitas. Someone familiar with facts. My initial guess is that Buttigieg would do the job nicely. Trump wouldn’t be able to avoid some gay joke, and Buttigieg would gut him in a very civil way. Warren would drive him crazy, he’d see her as Hillary 2 and he’s still not over her. Harris plays prosecutor well, I wonder how she is in a give and take?

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  28. Lit3Bolt says:

    He realized he would have to stop golfing to play war.

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  29. Ken_L says:

    CNN has a story up about Trump “agonizing” over his decision. So much responsibility for one man! So many different arguments!

    Yet few people have made drawn the obvious conclusion that it’s a bad idea to leave decisions of war and peace to one man. Iran isn’t going anywhere. There’s no reason why Congress shouldn’t have a comprehensive debate about America’s goals in the region and the means it ought to be using to achieve them.

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  30. dazedandconfused says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I view him as a calculated bully. He will grind you into the dust only if he won’t get his “hair mussed” in the process, as Buck Turgeson put it.

    Subcontractors have enabled this behavior his entire career. The problem now is while business people generally knuckle under if there is a way to make a profit from doing so, in the game of nations politicians frequently balk at losing face.

    I suspect Kamala Harris may also belong on your list. I don’t think she has the right stuff for presidential campaigning, but if she was easily rattled she would never have survived as a prosecutor in Oakland. We’ll see. I would like to see Buttigeig debate Trump too.

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