The U.S. and Iran moved to defuse rising tensions Friday after a tense 24 hours in which the world waited to see if President Donald Trump would authorize military action for a shoot-down of a Navy drone.
In a string of four morning tweets, Trump said he called off launching airstrikes on three sites in Iran at the last minute because he was concerned about killing Iranian people. The estimated death toll, which he claimed was 150 people, was “not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone.”
Meanwhile, a commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said that his forces opted not to shoot down manned military aircraft with 35 U.S. service members aboard, instead choosing to hit the drone.
“This plane also entered our airspace and we could have shot it down, but we did not do it,” said Amirali Hajizadeh, head of IRGC’s aerospace division, according to the Fars News Agency reported.
While it remains a volatile situation capable of igniting into wider war, the comments show the two nations are willing to de-escalate the building tensions. Taken together, the statements reveal a potential off-ramp to military confrontation.
Still, the Trump Administration has been on a collision course with Iran since withdrawing from the landmark nuclear deal a year ago. The Administration continues to ratchet the economic pressure that has plunged Iran’s oil exports to historic lows.
Michael O’Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution think tank, said Washington and Tehran are now “partly trying to defuse” tensions for conflict. “But they are also looking for the moral high ground in what is also a competition over world opinion in the economic ‘war’ where the United States certainly is not interested in defusing the situation, but rather in increasing the pressure,” he said.
Trump took the unprecedented step of detailing — on social media — the decision-making process on whether or not to launch military action. “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,” he said in a tweet.
Trump’s account left it unclear as to why he was briefed on potential casualties mere minutes before launching a multi-pronged aerial attack. It is customary to discuss all the elements of a strike, including potential civilian casualties, early in any deliberations, along with targets, the assets needed and timing, among other issues. However, he left an open question as to whether he would authorize future operations against Iran and could be buying time for that decision.
The two nations do not have diplomatic relations, which adds to the precariousness of the situation. The U.S. and Iranian forces operate in close proximity at different hotspots in the region. Analysts fear a mistake or miscalculation could lead to catastrophic consequences.
Kelly Magsamen, a former national security adviser in the Obama Administration now at the Center for American Progress think tank, said in a statement that “the last thing America needs is another disastrous war in the Middle East.”
“President Trump needs to act now to de-escalate the crisis, including through direct diplomacy with Iran without preconditions on either side,” she said.
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.
U.S. commanders have increased the number of intelligence-gathering aircraft in the region to get a clearer picture of Iranian operations. A U.S. official told TIME that a Navy P-8 Poseidon surveillance plane was aloft on a mission Thursday morning when the RQ-4 Global Hawk drone was shot down by a surface-to-air missile fired from an installation near Goruk, Iran. The maximum number of people that can fly on the aircraft is 20, not 35 as Iran claimed.
“We intended to send a message to American terrorists in the region,” Hajizadeh told Fars. He appeared in photographs alongside alleged debris of the U.S. drone that was shot down.
The U.S. and Iran are still disputing the location of the drone when it was hit. U.S. officials claim it was flying in international airspace over the Strait of Hormuz, while Iranians say it was over their territory violating their country’s airspace.
Both sides have released videos, images and maps of the drone’s flight path to bolster their respective cases, which are impossible to independently verify.