By Jeff Mason and Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Friday he aborted a military strike on Iran because he it could have killed 150 people, a disproportionate response to Tehran’s downing of an unmanned U.S. surveillance drone.
Trump said the plan was to hit three sites in response to the drone’s downing on Thursday, which Tehran said took place over its territory and which Washington said occurred in international airspace over the strategic Strait of Hormuz.
The drone incident aggravated fears of a direct military clash between the longtime foes and oil prices rose about $1 per barrel to above $65.50 on Friday due to worries about possible disruptions to crude exports from the Gulf.
In a sign that the United States is also open to diplomacy, Iranian sources told Reuters, Trump had warned them that a U.S. attack on Iran was imminent but saying that he was against war and wanted talks on a range of issues.
In a series of early morning tweets, Trump said he was in no hurry to launch a strike and that U.S. economic sanctions designed to force Iran to curb its nuclear and missile programs and its involvement in regional wars were having an effect.
He also said the United States imposed additional sanctions against Iran on Thursday night following the destruction of the Global Hawk drone by an Iranian surface-to-air missile, but it was not immediately clear what those economic penalties may have been.
“Ten minutes before the strike I stopped it, not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone. I am in no hurry, our military is rebuilt, new, and ready to go, by far the best in the world,” Trump tweeted.
White House national security adviser John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and CIA Director Gina Haspel, along with the rest of Trump’s team, favored a retaliatory strike, said a senior Trump administration official.
“There was complete unanimity amongst the president’s advisors and DOD leadership on an appropriate response to Iran’s activities. The president made the final decision,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
TRUMP MESSAGE TO IRAN
Earlier on Friday, Iranian officials told Reuters that Tehran had received a message from Trump warning that a U.S. attack on Iran was imminent but saying that he was against war and wanted talks on a range of issues.
News of that message, delivered through Oman overnight, came shortly after the New York Times reported that Trump had called off air strikes targeting Iranian radar and missile batteries at the last minute.
“In his message, Trump said he was against any war with Iran and wanted to talk to Tehran about various issues,” one of the officials told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“He gave a short period of time to get our response but Iran’s immediate response was that it is up to Supreme Leader (Ayatollah Ali) Khamenei to decide about this issue.”
A second Iranian official said: “We made it clear that the leader is against any talks, but the message will be conveyed to him to make a decision.
“However, we told the Omani official that any attack against Iran will have regional and international consequences.”
Khamenei has the last say on all state matters and has ruled out any talks with Washington while Tehran is under sanctions.
Iran shot down the drone after weeks of festering tension amidst a spate of attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf region.
In his initial response on Thursday, Trump said he was not eager to escalate a stand-off with Iran over its nuclear and ballistic missile activities and support for proxies in various Middle East conflicts.
He said the unmanned drone might have been shot down in error by someone who was acting “loose and stupid”, though added: “This country will not stand for it.”
In a sign that the United States may be interested in pursuing diplomacy for now, it asked the U.N. Security Council to meet on Iran behind closed-doors on Monday, diplomats said.
(Additional reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh in Geneva, Jamie Freed in Singapore, David Shepardson in Washington and Tom Westbrook in Sydney, Tom Balmforth in Moscow, David Alexander, Roberta Rampton, Phil Stewart in Washington, Sabine Siebold in Brussels and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing by Mark Heinrich and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Bill Rigby and Alistair Bell)