Trump Orders, Calls Off Retaliatory Strike on Iran

Video provided by U.S. Central Command appears to show the downing of a U.S. Navy RQ-4 surveillance drone in the Gulf of Oman early Thursday morning (CENTCOM)

Published Jun 21, 2019 6:28 PM by The Maritime Executive

On Thursday, U.S. President Donald Trump ordered and then called off a strike on Iranian radar and missile sites in retaliation for the downing of a U.S. Navy surveillance drone near the Strait of Hormuz.

"We were cocked & loaded to retaliate last night on 3 different sights [sic] when I asked, how many will die," Trump said in a Twitter post Friday. "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."  

Officials within the administration told the Washington Post that the casualty count was also discussed prior to the decision to launch the strike. According to those present, National Security Advisor John Bolton is said to have strongly favored carrying out the attack, in keeping with his views on Iran; top Defense Department officials are said to have encouraged the president to exercise caution. 

Reuters reported Friday that Trump reached out to Iranian officals using Omani intermediaries late on Thursday, before the strike, in order to warn Tehran that an attack was on the way. The White House denied the report, asserting that the story was "a complete lie and propaganda from Iran." Iranian state media has also denied that any communication took place.

Trump's decision not to follow through with the strike elicited a mixed reaction in the United States - including praise from many of the president's critics. "I do applaud Trump’s decision not to carry out what would have been a disproportionate strike," said former CIA director John Brennan, an outspoken critic of the president's conduct during the Russia investigation, in an interview with MSNBC Friday. Even some of the president's best-known opponents applauded the move: “Deciding not to strike was the right decision,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), a prominent figure on the left wing of the Democratic party. 

Some were more measured in their praise, noting that Trump may have created confusion about American intentions by launching and then canceling a military action. “He certainly deserves praise for not doing something that would have been, I think, unwarranted and unjustified,” said House majority leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), speaking to the Washington Post. “He does not deserve praise for the lack of consistency of his policies and the instability that that creates.”

Some leading Republican members of Congress criticized the president for failing to retaliate after the downing of an American drone. “If Iran thinks that it can demonstrate to the world that somehow it’s able to take advantage of the United States, that it’s able to attack and destroy one of our drones without any consequence . . . I think that that’s very dangerous," said the chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) in a radio interview Friday. “Weakness is provocative."

Iran claims that it could have targeted manned aircraft

Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Aerospace Force, claimed Friday that his forces could have shot down a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon manned surveillance aircraft instead of the drone. It chose to target the unmanned aircraft instead in order to send a message.  

“Along with the American drone was an American P8 aircraft with 35 on board, and it was also violating our airspace and we could have downed it too,” he told state-owned Fars News. “But we did not do it, because our aim was to warn the terrorist forces of the U.S.” 

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Friday that Iran had recovered parts of the drone from waters within the bounds of Iran's territorial seas, and Iranian officials displayed what they claimed were pieces of the wreckage at a press conference for state media. The Pentagon asserts that the drone was operating in international airspace at the time of the incident.