In a series of tweets on Friday morning, President Donald Trump casually mentioned that he had ordered air strikes on Iran, but that he called them off 10 minutes prior to execution.
“We were cocked & loaded to retaliate last night on 3 different sights when I asked, how many will die,” he wrote. “150 people, sir, was the answer from a General. 10 minutes before the strike I stopped it, not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone.”
He went on to write that the U.S. military is “ready to go” and “Iran can NEVER have Nuclear Weapons.”
….proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone. I am in no hurry, our Military is rebuilt, new, and ready to go, by far the best in the world. Sanctions are biting & more added last night. Iran can NEVER have Nuclear Weapons, not against the USA, and not against the WORLD!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 21, 2019
It’s unclear who told the president that the death toll from the strikes would be limited to 150, although hawkish members of his inner circle, such as Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) have said that Iran cold be brought to heel in just “two strikes.”
That low casualty count also assumes zero response from Iran — a highly unlikely scenario.
“He was simply unwilling to spill that much blood in retaliation for an unmanned drone being shot down,” said Gary Sick, a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Middle East Institute.
“Or, that’s his explanation, and one has to accept that that is as good an explanation as one is going to get,” said Sick, who was also the principal White House aide for Iran during the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis.
Sick also told ThinkProgress that he was struck by how open Trump was about first agreeing with his advisers on striking back, then holding off, realizing that it might spark a larger conflict.
“His advisers, though, were clearly ready to go with the strike,” said Sick. Among those advisers might have been National Security Advisor John Bolton, who has been openly advocating for war with Iran for years. Bolton, though, has been notably silent on the topic in recent weeks — at least, in a public capacity.
Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, said Sick, “have been putting together a policy that looked very much like it was heading towards war.” Trump has stepped in several times to say, “‘No, that’s not really what we have in mind’ — but that has been really fuzzy,” he added.
Confusion surrounds the president’s decision making, with the past 24 hours yielding wildly contradictory narratives, notably from the administration itself.
While Trump says he doesn’t want war with Iran, on Sunday, his administration moved an additional 1,000 troops to the region, and according to his own word, had ordered strikes on Iran in response to the country shooting down a U.S. surveillance drone.
Iran claims the craft was in its territory, while the United States maintains it was international airspace when it was shot down.
The New York Times on Thursday night reported that Trump had ordered strikes on military targets (radar and missile batteries) in Iran, only to reverse the order. On Friday morning, Reuters reported that Iranian officials had received a message from Trump, delivered through officials in Oman, that an attack was “imminent” and that the U.S. president wanted to discuss a range of issues. When Iran did not agree to the talks immediately, Trump called off the strike.
But a spokesman for Iran’s Supreme National Security Council said that Iran had not received a message from Trump via Oman (or presumably, any other intermediary).
So even as he had ordered strikes Iranian targets, moving U.S. assets into the region, Trump tweeted on Friday that he was “in no hurry” to attack Iran. And less than 24 hours prior, the president indicated that some kind of error had resulted in the drone being shot down, saying “I find it hard to believe it was intentional.”
It’s unclear what made him pivot from that perspective to ordering strikes on Iran, but certainly the news that the United States was 10 minutes away from starting a war with Iran will further heighten tensions between the two countries.
The Trump administration has been hammering Iran with accusations after two tankers were attacked in the Gulf of Oman last week. Iran denies any involvement in the attack, but the United States, pointing to surveillance footage taken after the attacks, claims that Iran is responsible.
Sick said that for Iran, allowing the U.S. to believe it is responsible for the attacks is not a bad thing at all, because it shows that “there is a cost” for the U.S. pulling out of the 2015 nuclear deal and re-imposing sanctions on Iran. (Sick believes Iran likely did, in fact, target the two oil tankers, although the evidence presented isn’t considered to be conclusive to all experts).
That cost would be a hike in oil prices and a threat to the safety of oil tankers going through the Strait of Hormuz, waters at Iran’s southern borders.
Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran thus far has largely consisted of sanctions and sending about 2,500 troops to the region in the last month to counter Iran.
The president wants Iran to renegotiate the term of the 2015 nuclear deal, which offered sanctions relief in exchange for Iran radically curbing the scope of its nuclear energy program. Trump violated the deal last year, withdrawing against the advice of France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia, and China (who are also party to the deal).
With sanctions re-imposed and its oil exports grinding to a slow halt, Iran’s already-squeezed economy is feeling the pain. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has accused the United States of carrying out a form of economic terrorism or war against the country of 80 million, and Iran’s U.N. ambassador Majid Takht Ravanchi has said that commencing talks with the United States under these circumstances is not possible.
“You cannot negotiate with somebody who has a knife in his hand putting the knife under your throat,” Majid Takht Ravanchi told NPR.
The United States has demanded that Iran change a number of its key policies in the region, ones entirely unrelated to nuclear energy, and Iran has outright rejected those demands, especially while sanctions remain in place.
Trump’s offer of meeting with Iran without any preconditions has not included any guarantee of the sanctions being lifted again, which is a major sticking point with Iran.
Iran has never had nuclear weapons, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) repeatedly confirmed that Iran was abiding by the terms of the deal before Trump’s withdrawal. By all accounts, Iran continued to comply with the terms of the nuclear deal for a year after the U.S. pulled out, hoping for some kind of solution to be worked out with the other parties in the agreement. But those solutions have never materialized.
From the Iranian perspective, Sick said this has “basically created an untenable situation” for Iran, which, he said, had tried to respond diplomatically (by backing away from some of the requirements of the nuclear deal) and possibly militarily (possibly attacking tankers in the Gulf and definitely shooting down an American drone).
Shooting down the drone, especially, said Sick, represents very powerful signaling.
“It was a judgement call by Iran — nobody is going to go to war over a drone being shot down. And it’s a clear signal that, ‘One, we see what you’re doing, and two we have the capacity to strike at these things,'” he said.
But where do Tehran and Washington go from here?
Sick sees Trump’s decision to hold off on a strike as a de-escalation — it’s unclear whether Iran sees it that way — which leaves the door open for talks, possibly with help from an intermediary, such as Oman or Japan.
“I can’t imagine that the United States is going to suddenly launch another strike tomorrow, having gone through this whole thing,” said Sick.
“Right now I think we have a moment — maybe a brief moment — that the two sides have a possibility of talking to each other in a different way,” he added.