Why Trump Decided Not to Attack Iran

Officials say the president is looking for a peaceful solution to the crisis.

By Lara Seligman and Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Donald Trump (from left), Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and National Security Advisor John Bolton attend a bilateral meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the White House on June 20.
U.S. President Donald Trump (from left), Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and National Security Advisor John Bolton attend a bilateral meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the White House on June 20. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. and Iranian governments moved to de-escalate tensions on Friday after the two nations reached the brink of war, with President Donald Trump confirming that U.S. forces were “cocked & loaded” to retaliate against Tehran’s downing of a U.S. military drone.

Trump called off the planned attacks on three separate sites in Iran just 10 minutes before go time, after learning that the strikes would kill 150 people, the president said in a tweet Friday morning.

“Not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone,” Trump wrote. “I am in no hurry.”

The crisis underscores how Trump’s hard-line approach to Iran is butting up against his goal of extricating the United States from costly conflicts in the Middle East. On the one hand, the Trump administration resurrected America’s confrontation with Iran and raised the specter of war by withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal, alienating European allies that support it, and pushing Iran into a corner with crippling sanctions. On the other hand, Trump, a longtime critic of the Iraq War, has vowed to draw down the United States’ costly and decades-long involvement in conflicts in the Middle East.

Fred Fleitz, a former advisor to John Bolton, Trump’s national security advisor, told Foreign Policy that he believes that by holding off on strikes for now Trump is “creating every opportunity for a peaceful resolution.”

“This is a president who was elected to get us out of war,” Fleitz said. “He doesn’t want war with Iran.”

The internal debate leading up to the aborted strikes reflects a national security team torn in opposite directions, as hard-liners like Bolton reportedly push for action and military advisors urge caution. Trump’s last-minute decision to abort the strikes appears to be a clear defeat for the administration’s hawks, particularly Bolton.

The decision on whether to strike Iran reportedly came down to a debate between Trump and Bolton, with officials such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Vice President Mike Pence, and incoming acting Defense Secretary Mark Esper playing the role of “swing votes.”

“The president has maximalist objectives, and he’s not prepared to pay a maximum price,” said Suzanne Maloney, an expert on Iran at the Brookings Institution.

She also said the crisis could drag on as the United States keeps its chokehold on the Iranian economy with crippling sanctions. “The Iranians don’t simply want to avoid a military strike. What they want to do is deter the president from imposing economic pressure,” she said. “That’s their end goal, and they haven’t achieved their end goal at the moment.”

The last-minute stand-down came amid disputed reports of diplomatic outreach between Washington and Tehran to avert war. Iranian officials told Reuters that Trump sent a message to Tehran through Oman on Thursday night saying he wanted to begin talks and avoid conflict. But another Iranian government spokesperson denied the report as absurd, and a senior U.S. administration official told the Washington Post that it was a complete lie and propaganda from Iran.

Pompeo, a staunch Iran hawk, has left open the prospect for talks with Iran in recent weeks, even as he condemned it for allegedly orchestrating a series of attacks on oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz. “Our policy remains an economic and diplomatic effort to bring Iran back to the negotiating table at the right time, to encourage a comprehensive deal that addresses the broad range of threats,” Pompeo told reporters on June 13 after two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman were targeted. The Trump administration blamed Iran for the attacks, an assertion backed up by some U.S. allies, while Iran denied any involvement.

In a sign Tehran is also moving to de-escalate, Iranian officials told Reuters that they had refrained from shooting down a manned military plane accompanying the RQ-4 Global Hawk downed on Thursday. Downing a manned aircraft—reportedly a P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft that carries a crew of nine and costs more than $250 million—would have been a dramatic escalation that crossed the red line Trump has set for taking military action against the regime: a dead American.

“With the U.S. drone in the region, there was also an American P-8 plane with 35 people on board,” Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the aerospace division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, was quoted as saying by Iranian media. (According to the U.S. Navy, the P-8 has a crew of nine; this discrepancy is likely a mistake.) “This plane also entered our airspace, and we could have shot it down, but we did not.”

The very fact that the drone—and potentially the P-8—got close enough to Iranian air defenses to get shot down indicates that U.S. military commanders were preparing for the possibility of an attack, said Robert Pape, a professor at the University of Chicago specializing in international security affairs.

“Updating an attack plan doesn’t mean you are going to attack,” Pape cautioned. “But this is happening in the middle of a crisis where the use of force is [on the table]. This cauldron is brewed for miscalculation.”

It also indicates that the range of Iranian air defenses is greater than the U.S. military anticipated. Commanders in the region may now ask for additional electronic warfare assets to suppress hostile air defenses, said Byron Callan, an analyst with Capital Alpha Partners.

The incident “suggests there will need to be a rethink of operating airborne surveillance systems within range of Iranian air defenses, as well as broader questions about survivability of these sorts of platforms in contested environments,” Callan said.

Update, June 21, 2019: This article was updated to include U.S. and Iranian officials denying reports that Trump sent a message to Iran through Oman. 

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer