President Donald Trump downplayed the likelihood of U.S. military action against Iran after a military drone was shot down Thursday during a reconnaissance mission in the Middle East, the latest test of an escalating conflict that the President is seeking to avoid.
Speaking at the White House, Trump suggested the shoot-down of the $100 million high-flying U.S. drone could have been an accident carried out by a “general” acting “loose and stupid.”
“I find it hard to believe it was intentional,” he said, adding that the downing of the military aircraft was “a new fly in the ointment” in his Administration’s dealings with Iran. He did not indicate how the U.S. would respond.
The President hasn’t been shy about saying he doesn’t want to get involved in additional military entanglements overseas, often issuing interpretations of Iranian actions that are more measured than those of his advisers. In an interview with TIME on Monday, Trump called Iran’s alleged attacks on oil tankers in the region “very minor,” striking a notably different tone than the Pentagon.
But his Administration has been on a collision course with Iran since the U.S. withdrew from the landmark nuclear deal a year ago. The shoot-down Thursday represented the most serious clash yet. Whether or not Trump wants to admit it, the U.S. and Iran are already locked in a low-grade conflict that could evolve into a wider war, either by miscalculation or deliberate action.
Trump’s remarks appear to be an attempt to lower the tensions, seizing on an assessment by some U.S. intelligence analysts that an Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commander might have launched the attack without authorization from the government. The IRGC is an Iranian military entity with a separate line of command that runs through Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rather than President Hassan Rouhani, who oversees the country’s military.
The Iranian government celebrated the shoot-down on Thursday, however, indicating it was highly unlikely to have been a mistake or the work of a rogue actor.
“The downing of the U.S. drone had an explicit, decisive and clear message that defenders of the Islamic Iran’s borders will show decisive and knockout reactions to aggression against this territory by any alien,” said Hossein Salami, an IRGC commander, according to Iran’s semiofficial Tasnim news agency. “Borders are our redline, and any enemy violating these borders will not go back.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif issued a slightly more measured sentiment on Twitter. “The US wages #EconomicTerrorism on Iran, has conducted covert action against us & now encroaches on our territory,” he said. “We don’t seek war, but will zealously defend our skies, land & waters. We’ll take this new aggression to #UN & show that the US is lying about international waters.”
The U.S. military, in turn, released grainy video and a map that it said was proof the drone was over international waters and never got closer to Iran than 21 miles.
Lt. Gen. Joseph Guastella, commander of U.S. air forces in the Middle East, said in a statement that the drone was flying over the Gulf of Oman and the Strait of Hormuz on a surveillance mission in international airspace when it was shot down by a surface-to-air missile fired from an installation near Goruk, Iran.
“This was an unprovoked attack on a U.S. surveillance asset that had not violated Iranian airspace at any time during its mission,” he said. “This dangerous and escalatory attack was irresponsible and occurred in the vicinity of established air corridors between Dubai, UAE, and Muscat, Oman, possibly endangering innocent civilians.”
The drone that was shot down was a U.S. Navy RQ-4, a high-end reconnaissance plane that flies for 30 hours at a time 10 miles above the earth. It is unarmed, but packed with the military’s most advanced cameras and sensor equipment.
“It’s hard to know what the Iranian strategy is here, not just because it’s opaque, but because there may not be one coherent strategy that the IRGC and Rouhani’s government share,” said one U.S. official on Thursday, who spoke on the condition of anonymity and without authorization to speak to the news media. “There appear to be different elements that may or may not fit together. One is pushing the envelope to see where the American limit is.”
The Trump Administration’s approach to Iran has been disjointed in its own right. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton have argued for a more aggressive response. Some officials in the intelligence community, the military and the State Department have also warned that a military response could easily spin out of control.
The U.S. official, along with a second intelligence official who also requested anonymity to speak without authorization, said Iran, and especially its civilian leaders, are trying to use the Trump Administration’s threats of military action to isolate the U.S. from its allies, who have been seeking ways to continue doing business with Iran despite Washington’s campaign to exert economic pressure on the Islamic Republic.
Pounded by U.S. sanctions, Iran’s oil exports have plunged from their peak of 2.5 million barrels per day peak in April 2018 down to 500,000 barrels, a historic low. And the Trump Administration continues to turn the global financial system into a weapon against Tehran. The policy has triggered an exodus of corporations and financial institutions that would rather abandon their investments in Iran than risk U.S. Treasury Department sanctions.
However, rather than forcing Iran to renegotiate the 2015 six-nation Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to curb Iran’s nuclear weapons program, which the Trump administration has abandoned, “Washington’s maximum pressure” campaign has prompted a string of bellicose behavior from Iran and its allies.
Iranian-backed militias have been accused of launching a series of attacks against U.S. and allies’ facilities in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the Gulf of Oman. Meanwhile, Tehran announced an escalation of its nuclear program, saying that by next week it will breach the limit on its stockpile of enriched uranium that was set under the nuclear deal.
The drone shoot-down came just days after the U.S. military blamed Iran for firing at—and missing—another drone flying over international waters. The U.S. also has accused the Iranian government of being behind six attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman over the past six weeks and launching rockets at several U.S.-linked facilities.
The uncertainty about who ordered the attack on the drone and why only makes a volatile situation more dangerous. While the U.S. and Iran both have said publicly that they don’t want war, both nations have taken steps toward — rather than away from — an escalating confrontation.
Earlier this week, the Pentagon announced 1,000 additional troops will be deployed to the Middle East for security and intelligence gathering. A squadron of 12 jet fighters, several spy planes, Patriot missile batteries, a B-52 bomber task force, the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier strike group and other military assets have already been dispatched to the region.
The White House invited Congressional leaders to a briefing Thursday afternoon about the tense standoff. Republicans and Democrats agree that Iran is a bad actor intent on expanding its influence in the Middle East, either directly as its military forces and Iranian-backed political groups have done in Iraq, or by funding and equipping proxies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. But there is no consensus on how to respond.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters that “there’s no appetite to go to war in our country.” Meanwhile, Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and Trump ally, said if Iran was “itching for a fight, they’re going to get one.”
Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat and the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said after the White House briefing that in the meeting Trump repeated his suggestion that the shoot-down of the drone may have been accidental.
“President Trump suggested that Iran’s use of force to take down this surveillance drone in international air space may have been unintentional,” Reed said in a statement Thursday evening. “At a minimum, it illustrates the risk of miscalculation in what has become a highly pressurized situation.”