What's Next for U.S. and Iran: Strikes Called Off, But Can They Back Down?

President Donald Trump may have called off military strikes against Iran at the last minute, but heightened tensions have yet to abate between Washington and Tehran, who both stand to lose in the event of a conflict

Newsweek reported early Friday that Trump planned to attack sites in Iran, including an S-125 Neva/Pechora surface-to-air missile system, as late as 7 p.m. ET Thursday in response to Iran's earlier downing of an RQ-4A Global Hawk surveillance drone, only to withdraw his order what he later said was just "10 minutes" before it was executed.

In particularly candid remarks, the president later explained he felt one general's estimate of "150 people" killed in the attack was "not proportionate" to Iran hitting an unmanned aerial vehicle.

In Tehran, the elite Revolutionary Guards also demonstrated restraint. Aerospace commander Amir Ali Hajizadeh repeated the Pentagon-disputed accusation that the U.S. drone had breached Iran's airspace and then revealed the allegation that "another American spy plane, a P-8, was also present and entered Iranian territory, but due to the fact that there were 35 people on board, we did not destroy it."

Still, Newsweek reported that U.S. military assets in the region such as the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Leyte Gulf were on 72-hour standby as Washington prepared for another tense night. In Iran too, a population on the frontlines held mixed feelings.

"Iranians have different ideas—some are really worried and afraid of a war, others don't care or don't think it would happen," Fereshteh Sadeghi, a Tehran-based freelance political analyst told Newsweek. "I am from the second group."

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General Amir Ali Hajizadeh (R), head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's aerospace division, speaks to media next to debris from a downed U.S. drone reportedly recovered within Iran's territorial waters and put on display in the capital, Tehran, June 21. The general claimed that his forces also spotted a U.S. P-8 Poseidon violating Iranian airspace, but held back from downing it because there were 35 people on board MEGHDAD MADADI/TASNIM NEWS/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

The U.S. and Iran have a 40-year history of exchanging rhetorical hostilities since the latter overthrew a monarchy propped up by the West to bring in a revolutionary Shiite Muslim leadership skeptical of foreign meddling. Over the decades, the two have occasionally opened fire—the deadliest instance of which involved the U.S. Navy mistakenly downing an Iranian passenger plane, Iran Air Flight 655, killing 290 people in July 1988—but even at the tensest of times, all-out war was averted, likely because both sides knew what was at stake.

"In case the U.S. attacks Iran then Iran would also attack its bases similar to what Israel and Palestinians in Gaza are used to. The U.S. calls them surgical attacks, it would pound military installations and nuclear sites, some people would be killed in the vicinity of the targets—by mistake in the bombardment of course!" Sadeghi told Newsweek. "It would make life difficult for the Iranians but—and there is a big but—if it happened at all."

"I don't think a war would happen as you see the U.S. and Iran are on the verge of critical point but they don't surpass it," she added.

Not only would it only heighten the suffering among the Iranian population—much of which is struggling under U.S. sanctions—but an American attack would likely be a boon to the hard-liners in power in Tehran. Sadeghi explained, "they need to garner public support and gather all people under the national-sentiment umbrella and what better than a limited U.S. attack?"

In the U.S. too, military action would only satisfy the most hawkish voices at Trump's ear. White House National Security Adviser John Bolton has for years called for pre-emptive attacks on Iran and has often been regarded as one of the primary architects of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a cautionary tale of Middle East adventurism based on faulty intelligence and with deadly results — mostly, by far, for Iraqis.

"President Trump apparently understands that another war in the Middle East won't stabilize the war-ridden region, bring peace, justice, democracy or eliminate extremism and terrorism," Ali Alyami, director of the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, said in a statement sent to Newsweek. "On the contrary, another war (which all parties say they don't want) will only strengthen the hands of the men whose draconian policies and brutal practices made the region the least advanced, most dangerous and worst place to live and raise children."

While Trump and his administration may not be accountable to Iranians—who they claim to be acting in support of—they do have to answer to Congress, at least occasionally. A day before the drone downing and the subsequent near-strikes on Iran, U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook defended the "maximum pressure" strategy, through which Trump left a 2015 nuclear deal and imposed strict sanctions on Tehran, but he faced tough questions about the president's ability to wage war.

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President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and national security adviser John Bolton are seen during a bilateral meeting with Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, June 20. Trump initially heeded Pompeo and Bolton's advise in attacking Iran, but held back at the last minute, fearing civilian casualties. MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Asked repeatedly about whether Trump would or needed to gain congressional consent to attack Iran, Hook simply said that "we will do everything we are required to do with respect to congressional war powers and we will comply with the law."

Ironically, Congress voted for the first time in history in favor of invoking the 1973 War Powers Act earlier this year in order to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, where Riyadh and Washington both claim the Zaidi Shiite Muslim Houthi rebel group was received support from Tehran. Trump vetoed the measure in April.

"Donald Trump ordered the strike hours before he called it off. The first question news outlets should be asking is why didn't he know how many people would be killed in the strike when he ordered it?" Iram Ali, campaign director of progressive policy action group MoveOn, told Newsweek.

"The second question to ask is if Donald Trump truly cares about the lives of people, why did he just bypass Republicans and Democrats in Congress to greenlight weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE who are carrying out horrific attacks in Yemen that are putting millions of people on the brink of starvation—after vetoing bipartisan legislation that would have stopped U.S. support of the Saudi war?", she added. "The third should be whose advice is he listening to—and what role the architects of the devastating Iraq War have in plotting Iran strategy."

Still, reports that Trump went against Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other top officials in holding back his anticipated strike against Iran showed his campaign-era instincts on avoiding the costly, "endless" campaigns of his predecessors may still be active enough to avoid such a confrontation. As he told reporters Thursday, however, "you'll soon find out."