Donald Trump Decided to Strike Iranian Missile System, Then Changed His Mind

An ordered military operation against military targets in Iran was called off in the early stages on Thursday, though the reason for holding the strike remains unclear.

As reported by the New York Times and confirmed by Newsweek, President Donald Trump gave the go-ahead for an attack on a series of sites in Iran and military officials were in the process of carrying out the orders before the president reversed course and officials received a stand down order.

Officials who spoke to the Times did not indicate why Trump changed his mind regarding the attack, or if a strike would be carried out in the coming days as tensions have continued to mount between Iran and the United States. Newsweek has learned from a Pentagon official, however, that regional U.S. military assets, including the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Leyte Gulf, have been put on 72-hour standby.

The source said that U.S. forces were awakened around 2 a.m. local time "within the hour" of striking, then nothing happened. Plans to attack were said to have still been on by 6:30, even 7 p.m. EDT.

While some of reports originating in a number of Arabic-language Twitter accounts of sirens and explosions in Iran's southwestern city of Bushehr—home to military installations and nuclear facilities—initially caused a minor social media stir around the time the strike was planned, these claims ultimately proved false.

Among the U.S.' designated targets was the S-125 Neva/Pechora surface-to-air missile system, a Soviet system known to the NATO Western military alliance as SA-3 Goa, a Pentagon official told Newsweek. This weapon was believed by the U.S. military to have been used by Iran's Revolutionary Guards in Thursday's downing of a Navy RQ-4A Global Hawk drone, though the elite Iranian force claimed to have used the domestically produced 3rd Khordad transporter erector launcher and radar, a variant of the locally-made Raad surface-to-air missile system.

Iran claimed the downed drone had violated its airspace, while the Pentagon has contended that the unmanned aircraft was flying in international airspace.

us ships iran strike group navy
The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Bainbridge, left, and the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Leyte Gulf transit the Strait of Gibraltar, entering the Mediterranean Sea, April 13. The ships were part of the Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group, which was deployed to the Middle East amid what the U.S. claimed to be a heightened threat towards its interests posed by Iran. Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Tristan Kyle Labuguen/U.S. Navy

The U.S. and Iran have in the past engaged in minor skirmishes in the strategic waters of the Persian Gulf, but this strike would have been unprecedented in the 40 years of mutual hostility that have transpired since the Islamic Revolution ousted a West-backed monarchy in favor of the current leadership, dominated by clerics.

While Trump previously oversaw the first-ever U.S. strikes on Syria in April 2017 and 2018, a decision to attack Iran could prove a more serious departure from his presidential vow to break with his predecessors in launching costly, lengthy military campaigns abroad.

In a rare respite in their decades-long animosity, the U.S. and Iran briefly came together under former President Barack Obama to sign a 2015 nuclear deal, lifting international sanctions in exchange for Tehran curbing its nuclear activities, but recent events have left both sides perhaps farther apart than any time before.

Last year, Trump announced America's exit from the agreement after repeatedly criticizing it for not going far enough to stop Iran's alleged support for militant groups and ballistic missile development. Iran has always denied wanting nuclear weapons, but last month — the anniversary of the U.S. withdrawal — it argued it too would reconsider its commitments and begin enriching uranium at higher levels.

us iran attack gulf drone
An RQ-4 Global Hawk soars through the sky to record intelligence, surveillence and reconnaissance data in this photo shared by the U.S. Air Force, October 27, 2014. A similar model was shot down by Iran's Revolutionary Guards in what they say was Iranian territory, but the Pentagon argues was international airspace. U.S. Air Force

Around this same time, White House national security adviser John Bolton and other key administration figures began warning of a heightened threat posed by Iran against U.S. interests in the region. Then came a string of incidents the U.S. linked to Iran, including rocket attacks against Iraqi bases, blasts that damaged oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman and, finally, on Thursday, the shooting down of the U.S. Navy RQ-4A.

Iran has denied any involvement in harassing U.S. troops or foreign-flagged commercial vessels, but openly claimed the hit on the high-flying, state-of-the-art surveillance drone, saying it had violated Iranian airspace. The U.S. and Iran each released maps showing conflicting paths for the RQ-4A, parts of which Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif claimed his country's forces collected within their territory, an account further disputed by the Pentagon.

Iran's top diplomat even vowed to take the case to the United Nations, which has already called for an investigation into the Gulf of Oman tanker attacks amid international skepticism. Russia, China and even European powers still looking to back the Iran nuclear deal have implored the U.S. not to escalate tensions with Iran, warning of devastating results. The Trump administration showed little response, however, as it continued to be distracted by overlapping investigations and even calls for impeachment at home as the crisis swelled abroad.

Just a day before the drone downing, Brian Hook, U.S. special envoy for Iran, faced a chorus of skeptical lawmakers grilling him on the president's ability to take military action without congressional consent. Hook mostly dodged these questions, simply saying the administration would "do everything that we are required to do with respect to congressional war powers" and referring legislators to the State Department's legal office.

us map iran gulf drone attack
A map shared by U.S. Central Command showed what the Pentagon claimed to be the location its RQ-4 surveillance drone was shot down as well as the Iranian surface-to-air missile system that hit it, June 20. The U.S. has argued its state-of-the-art unmanned aerial vehicle was downed over international airspace, something Iran disputes. U.S. Central Command Public Affairs
iran gulf drone attack drawing
An apparently hand-made drawing showed what Iran said was the path of the U.S. RQ-4 Global Hawk drone, originating in the United Arab Emirates and violating Iranian airspace before being shot down near the Iran's Kouh-e Mobarak region, June 20. The U.S. military has called such claims "categorically false" and argued the drone was hit over international airspace near the Strait of Hormuz. Foreign Ministry of the Islamic Republic of Iran

Back in Tehran, Revolutionary Guards commander Hossein Salami acknowledged earlier Thursday that the drone knockout sent "a clear message" to the U.S. He said his country did "not have any intention for war with any country," but was "ready" for one.

When first asked that same day if he would respond to the RQ-4A downing with military action, Trump initially left reporters guessing, simply saying "You'll soon find out" and even suggesting Iran did not engage the drone on purpose. Hours later, leading lawmakers were briefed at the White House and many, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, left stern-faced, warning reporters that even limited actions snowball into all-out conflicts

"I told the president that these conflicts have a way of escalating. The president may not intend to go to war here, but we are worried that he and the administration may bumble into a war," Schumer told reporters, recalling the "the run up to the Iraq War" — an example of U.S. military action based on faulty intelligence and wrought with unintended consequences that have destabilized the Middle East to this day.

The graphics below, provided by Statista, illustrate how threatened Americans feel by Iran and whether they support military action.

This article was updated to include infographics.

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