The possibility of U.S. military action against Iran continued to loom large Friday, despite ’s decision to call off an overnight strike.
Trump said he reversed course Thursday night because the strike was “not proportionate” to Iran’s downing of a U.S. surveillance drone — leaving open the question of whether the president is still searching for a military response he would consider proportionate.
The development left lawmakers and analysts questioning where the already volatile situation is headed.
“Both sides, I think, at this point see themselves as acting defensively while seeing the other as the aggressors, and I think this sets up a classic risk of a spiral to conflict even if both sides would prefer to avoid one,” Colin Kahl, who worked as national security adviser to former Vice President , told reporters Friday.
“Trump doesn’t have a lot of nonmilitary response options left. Having basically shot off every sanctions arrow in his quiver, there just aren’t lots of options to respond to Iranian provocations that are not kinetic,” Kahl said. “I think that Trump doesn’t want a war, but I also believe that he doesn’t want to look weak.”
U.S.-Iran tensions have been escalating for weeks as Trump has ramped up his so-called maximum pressure campaign against Tehran with ever-tightening sanctions designed to drive a stake in the heart of the nuclear deal he withdrew the U.S. from last year.
The administration also deployed more military forces to the region to protect against alleged Iranian threats and attacks on several oil tankers in the Gulf region.
But the situation took a more dramatic turn Wednesday night after Iran shot down an unarmed U.S. surveillance drone. The United States called the incident an “unprovoked attack,” insisting the drone was operating in international airspace, while Tehran argued it was flying over Iranian territory.
On Thursday, a sense of imminent military action hovered over Washington as administration officials and congressional leaders engaged in a series of briefings on the situation.
On Thursday night, The New York Times reported that Trump had approved military strikes on a handful of Iranian targets, such as radar and missile batteries, but backed off at the last minute.
Trump confirmed the account on Friday morning, saying the U.S. military was “cocked and loaded” before he was informed about how many deaths the strike would likely cause.
“We were cocked & loaded to retaliate last night on 3 different sights when I asked, how many will die. 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,” Trump tweeted.
Trump adjusted the details a bit later in an interview with NBC’s , saying his decision to back off came when military officers asked for final approval about a half hour before the strike would have happened.
The news left key Democrats increasing their demands that Trump seek approval from Congress before taking any military action.
Speaker (D-Calif.) said she was not informed of the plans Thursday, despite being in a White House situation room briefing that afternoon.
“A strike of that amount of collateral damage would be very provocative and I’m glad the president did not take that,” she told reporters on Friday. “Let me be very clear: The Democrats in the meeting, House and Senate Democrats, were very clear that Congress must act, that they must have the authority of Congress before we initiate military hostilities into Iran.”
Sen. (D-N.M.), who is sponsoring an amendment that would prohibit funds being used for military action on Iran without explicit congressional approval, said the new developments underscore the need for his measure.
“Last night, we were minutes from war: ten minutes from another war in the Middle East that Congress has not authorized and that the American people do not want. Thankfully, the president did not follow through – but we cannot trust him to hold off and other administration officials who are brazenly pushing for war with Iran for long,” Udall said in a statement. “It has never been more urgent that Congress step up to the plate and take a vote on my bipartisan amendment to prevent an unauthorized war with Iran.”
Meanwhile, top Republicans continued to push for military action. In an apparent attempt to appeal to Trump’s desire to break from former President Obama, several compared the situation to Obama not launching strikes on Syria after the regime there used chemical weapons.
“We simply can’t allow America’s adversaries to think they could shoot down a U.S. military drone with impunity,” Rep. (R-Wyo.) said on radio host Hugh Hewitt’s show. “It’s crucially important that the Iranians recognize that this kind of behavior is not something that will be tolerated. And I would also point out that our other adversaries around the world are watching. We saw the damage that was done by when he announced a red line and failed to enforce it.”
But noninterventionist Republicans are working to convince Trump otherwise. Sen. (R-Ky.) tweeted that he has “strongly encouraged” Trump “to trust HIS instincts and avoid another war.”
Iran, meanwhile, upped its messaging on Wednesday’s incident, saying Friday that it warned the United States before it shot down the drone.
And while hopes were raised that Trump is looking for an off-ramp after Reuters cited unnamed Iranian sources saying he passed a message through Oman with a warning about his imminent strike and an offer for talks, the spokesman for Iran’s national security council told state TV that the Reuters report was “not true at all.”
Iran also said Friday it chose not to shoot down a U.S. P-8 Poseidon surveillance plane that was flying alongside the drone it struck because the plane was manned.
“Iran’s decision not to strike a manned aircraft — which would have almost certainly invited a kinetic response — is proof positive that Iran understands escalation dynamics, American red lines and how to gamble,” Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said in an email. “But the fact that the regime is touting that it could have targeted additional aircraft is akin to poking a finger in the eye of America.”