President Donald Trump says the United States came within 10 minutes of launching military strikes against Iran in retaliation for the shooting down of a U.S. Navy drone before calling off the move because the casualty count could have run into triple digits.
In a series of tweets on June 21, and then later in the day in an interview with NBC television, Trump said he was told that the number of casualties may reach 150 people, which the president said was "not proportionate" to the downing of the unmanned U.S. surveillance aircraft.
"We were cocked & loaded to retaliate," he said.
The downing of the drone came amid escalating tensions between Tehran and Washington.
The nearly executed attack on June 21 was the closest the U.S. has come to a direct military strike on Iran in the year since the administration pulled out of a 2015 accord with Tehran and other world powers that was intended to curb the Middle Eastern country's nuclear program. Iran claims the program is only for civilian purposes.
The United States has also blamed Tehran for a series of recent attacks on oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz -- including two tankers that were attacked in the Gulf of Oman on June 13.
Iran says it has "indisputable" evidence that the U.S. surveillance drone was shot down after it violated Iranian airspace. The United States says the aircraft was downed while in international airspace over the Strait of Hormuz.
The U.S. envoy on Iran, Brian Hook, said on June 21 that it was "important we do everything" to deescalate tensions with Iran.
"Our diplomacy does not give Iran the right to respond with military force," Hook said on June 21 in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. "Iran needs to meet our diplomacy with diplomacy and not military force."
Colin Kahl, the former national-security adviser to then Vice President Joe Biden, said that U.S. actions to take out even a few targets inside Iran -- such as radars or air defense systems -- would likely prompt a "large-scale" response by Tehran.
"A limited strike could still produce an unlimited conflict," Kahl said during a conference call on June 21 to discuss the developments.
Reuters quotes Iranian government officials as saying that Tehran received a message from Trump via Oman overnight warning of an imminent attack on Iran and calling for talks.
The Iranian officials told Reuters that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was against having "any kind of talks" with the United States, but he would be given the message about the imminent attack.
The U.S. military says the $160 million unmanned surveillance aircraft was flying over the Strait of Hormuz in international airspace when it was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile.
But Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) maintains it shot down a U.S. "spy" drone that had turned off its tracking equipment as it flew over Iran's southern province of Hormozgan -- saying the flight was a clear crossing of "our red line."
In its June 21 statement, Iran's Foreign Ministry said "even some parts of the drone's wreckage have been retrieved from Iran's territorial waters."
Later, Iranian state TV released images of what it said were "retrieved sections of a U.S. military drone." The photos showed what appeared to be the remains of a U.S. Navy RQ-4A Global Hawk, AP reported.
General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the IRGC’s aviation division, told Iranian state TV on June 21 that Iranian forces warned the U.S. military several times before launching a missile at the drone.
"Unfortunately, they did not answer,” he said.
Hajizadeh also said Iran refrained from shooting down a U.S. Navy Boeing P-8 Poseidon plane with 35 people on board that he said was accompanying the downed drone.
"With the U.S. drone in the region there was also an American P-8 plane with 35 people on board,” Iran's hard-line Tasnim news agency quoted Hajizadeh as saying. “This plane also entered our airspace and we could have shot it down, but we did not.”
Hajizadeh said the debris of the drone in the photos broadcast by state TV had been collected from Iran's territorial waters.
"We hope that our enemies do not make such mistakes again," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Musavi said in an interview with state broadcaster IRIB on June 21. "We have informed the UN and lodged a protest there against this clear and provocative violation of the United States."
Meanwhile, major international airlines -- including British Airways, Australia's Qantas, Dutch carrier KLM, Germany's Lufthansa, Emirates, Malaysia Airlines, and Singapore Airlines -- said they were suspending flights over the Strait of Hormuz.
The move came after the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration issued an emergency order banning U.S. carriers from flying in Iranian airspace over the Strait of Hormuz and Gulf of Oman.
Retaliatory Strikes 'Abruptly' Called Off
The downing of the drone came amid escalating tensions between Tehran and Washington. The United States has blamed Tehran for a series of attacks on oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz -- including two tankers that were attacked in the Gulf of Oman on June 13.
According to a U.S. official who spoke to AP, the strikes were recommended by the Pentagon and were among the options presented to senior administration officials.
Officials said Trump had initially approved attacks on several Iranian targets, including radar and missile batteries, the Times reported.
The report said the strikes were to take place just before dawn on June 21 to minimize the risk to Iranian military personnel or to civilians.