DONALD Trump reportedly approved air strikes on Iran in response to the shooting down of a US drone yesterday – but called them off at the last minute.
The US president allegedly signed off on military strikes to destroy targets like radar and missile batteries during a day of feverish tensions on Thursday.
But he called them off with moments to spare after intense debate in the White House among the president’s top national security officials and congressional leaders, the New York Times reported.
Planes were already in the air and ships were in position to launch a ferocious bombardment when order was given to stand down last night, the paper claimed.
The White House and the Pentagon declined to comment.
Earlier, Trump declared that “Iran made a very big mistake” by shooting down the unmanned $130million (£102m) US surveillance drone over the Strait of Hormuz.
But he also suggested that shooting down the drone was a foolish error rather than an intentional escalation of tensions – which have led to rising fears of open military conflict.
Trump said at the White House: “I find it hard to believe it was intentional, if you want to know the truth.
“I think that it could have been somebody who was loose and stupid that did it.”
But Iran portrayed the shooting as a deliberate defence of its territory rather than a mistake.
Congressional leaders urged caution to avoid escalation – and some lawmakers insisted the White House must consult with Congress before taking any actions.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton have advocated hardline policies against Iran.
The Trump administration is engaged in a “maximum pressure” campaign of economic sanctions with a buildup of American forces in the region.
On Thursday, Iran called the sanctions “economic terrorism,” insisted the drone had invaded its airspace and said it was taking its case to the United Nations.
It accused the U.S. of “a very dangerous and provocative act.”
The drone – which has a wingspan wider than a Boeing 737 – entered Iranian airspace “despite repeated radio warnings” Iran’s UN Ambassador Majid Takht Ravanchi claimed.
But the US insists the aircraft was 21 miles from the nearest Iranian territory and flying at high altitude when struck by a surface-to-air missile.
Trump, who has said he wants to avoid war and negotiate with Iran over its nuclear ambitions, appeared to play down the significance of the shootdown.
He cast it as “a new wrinkle … a new fly in the ointment.”
But he also said “this country will not stand for it, that I can tell you.”
Air Force Lt. Gen. Joseph Guastella, commander of U.S. Central Command air forces in the region, took a more pointed view of the shootdown.
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He said: “This attack is an attempt to disrupt our ability to monitor the area following recent threats to international shipping and free flow of commerce.”
The US recently sent an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf region and deployed additional troops alongside the tens of thousands already there.
It comes just a week after Iran was accused of planting and detonating mines on two oil tankers in the region.
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