WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has called Iran's shooting down of a drone over international waters near the Persian Gulf a "dangerous and escalatory attack," and President Donald Trump called it a "very big mistake" suggesting a retaliatory U.S. strike is imminent.
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan huddled Thursday with national security officials at the White House to discuss military options, including an attack on the site that launched the missile that destroyed the unmanned surveillance aircraft, according to a Defense official familiar with the discussions but not authorized to speak about them publicly.
By evening, a U.S. official told The Associated Press that the military made preparations for limited strikes on Iran, including radars and missile batteries, but approval was abruptly withdrawn before the attacks were launched.
The official was not authorized to discuss the operation publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. The New York Times, citing anonymous senior administration officials, reported that Trump had approved the strikes, but then called them off.
The White House on Thursday night declined the AP's requests for information about whether Trump changed his mind.
Earlier Thursday, the White House summoned leaders in Congress for a late-afternoon briefing on Iran.
"I sense that a limited, targeted reprisal strike is likely – but with the emphasis on 'limited,'" said Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution. "Then Iran will decide what it wants to do next. Not a huge risk of escalation. But still a non-zero risk."
In the last two years, U.S. and allied forces have mounted limited airstrikes in Syria that could offer a guide to an attack on Iran. In April 2018, American, British and French forces fired 105 missiles on three Syrian chemical weapons facilities a week after the regime of Bashar al Assad had lauched a brutal attack had killed 40 civilians. A year earlier, Tomahawk cruise missiles struck an airfield in Syria where Pentagon officials said a chemical attack had originated.
In recent weeks, the Pentagon has shifted an aircraft carrier strike group, B-52 bombers and thousands of troops to the region to confront Iran and protect American forces in the region. The bombers offer the option of launching long-range cruise missiles far from Iran's air defenses.
The Navy RQ-4 was flying in international airspace over waters where two tankers were attacked in recent weeks when it was blasted by a surface-to-air missile fired from a battery near Goruk, Iran, according to Air Force Lt. Gen. Joseph Guastella, commander of Air Force assets in the Middle East. Iran has denied attacking the tankers, and said Thursday that the drone had violated its airspace.
"This dangerous and escalatory attack was irresponsible and occurred in the vicinity of established air corridors between Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Muscat Oman, possibly endangering innocent civilians," Guastella said.
Experts had predicted Iran would continue acting out before the drone strike and that the crisis could sprial. Earlier this week, Philip Gordon, a negotiator on the deal to keep Iran from developing a nuclear weapons, said there were “not a lot of good options and a significant risk of escalation.”
Gordon, who was White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf Region under President Obama from 2013 to 2015, pointed to the Trump administration declaring Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization in April, and then imposing sanctions on other countries buying Iranian oil, which “severely punished the Iranian economy.”