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Trump says Iran made ‘very big mistake’ in shooting down US drone

Updated June 20, 2019 - 10:12 am

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump declared Thursday that “Iran made a very big mistake” in shooting down a U.S. drone but suggested it was an accident rather than a strategic error. Asked about a U.S. response, he said repeatedly, “You’ll find out.”

A few minutes earlier, a senior U.S. military officer said Iran shot down the huge, unmanned American aircraft over international waters in an attempt to disrupt U.S. efforts to monitor the Persian Gulf area where Trump has blamed Iran for attacking shipping vessels.

But Trump said he could not imagine the missile attack on the drone was intentional and he had a feeling “a general or somebody” mistakenly ordered the attack.

Top administration officials and lawmakers were at the White House in the afternoon for a briefing.

The White House invited House and Senate leaders of both parties and Democrats and Republicans on the House and Senate intelligence and Armed Services committees met with the president.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and Army Secretary Mark Esper, who Trump has said he’ll nominate as defense secretary, also arrived for the meeting.

Some members of Congress expressed alarm at the possibility of open conflict in the Middle East, especially after Trump’s morning tweet that said only, “Iran made a very big mistake.” But when asked about it later, he merely described the incident as a “new wrinkle” in escalating tensions between the U.S. and Iran — a “fly in the ointment.”

Still he said the U.S. “will not stand for it.”

Shortly before Trump spoke, at a photo opportunity with visiting Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Air Force Lt. Gen. Joseph Guastella, commander of U.S. Central Command air forces in the region, took a different tack from Trump’s idea of an accidental shootdown.

“This attack is an attempt to disrupt our ability to monitor the area following recent threats to international shipping and free flow of commerce,” he said.

Revolutionary Guard celebrates

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard shot down a U.S. surveillance drone on Thursday amid heightened tensions between Tehran and Washington over the collapsing nuclear deal with world powers, American and Iranian officials said, though they disputed the circumstances of the incident.

The Guard said it shot down the RQ-4 Global Hawk drone over Iranian airspace, while the U.S. said the downing happened over international airspace in the Strait of Hormuz. The different accounts could not be immediately reconciled.

Previously, the U.S. military alleged that Iran had fired a missile at another drone last week that was responding to the attack on two oil tankers near the Gulf of Oman. The U.S. blames Iran for the attack on the ships; Tehran denies it was involved.

Tensions increase

The attacks come against the backdrop of heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran following President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from Tehran’s nuclear deal a year ago.

Separately, Saudi Arabia said on Thursday that Yemen’s Iranian-allied Houthi rebels launched a rocket targeting a desalination plant in the kingdom the previous night. The White House said Trump was briefed about that attack.

Iran has quadrupled its production of low-enriched uranium and threatened to boost its enrichment closer to weapons-grade levels, trying to pressure Europe for new terms to the 2015 nuclear deal.

In recent weeks, the U.S. has sped an aircraft carrier to the Mideast and deployed additional troops alongside the tens of thousands already in the region. From Yemen, the Houthis have launched bomb-laden drones into neighboring Saudi Arabia.

All this has raised fears that a miscalculation or further rise in tensions could push the U.S. and Iran into an open conflict, some 40 years after Tehran’s Islamic Revolution. Thursday’s drone incident marks the first direct Iranian-claimed attack on the U.S. amid the crisis.

“We do not have any intention for war with any country, but we are fully ready for war,” Revolutionary Guard commander Gen. Hossein Salami said in a televised address.

Putin urges caution

Russian President Vladimir Putin called for caution, warning any war between Iran and the U.S. would be a “catastrophe for the region as a minimum.”

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders says Trump was briefed Wednesday night and again Thursday morning about the incident, adding that the administration will keep in touch with U.S. lawmakers.

Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, which answers only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said it shot down the drone at 4:05 a.m. Thursday when it entered Iranian airspace near the Kouhmobarak district in southern Iran’s Hormozgan province. Kouhmobarak is about 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) southeast of Tehran and close to the Strait of Hormuz.

Iran used its air defense system known as Third of Khordad to shoot down the drone — a truck-based missile system that can fire up to 18 miles (30 kilometers) high, the semi-official Fars news agency reported.

Loss more than $100M

Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency, citing the Guard, identified the drone as an RQ-4 Global Hawk, which cost over $100 million apiece and can fly higher than 10 miles and stay in the air for over 24 hours at a time. They have a distinguishable hump-shaped front and an engine atop. Their wingspan is bigger than a Boeing 737 passenger jet.

The Guard described the drone as being launched from the southern Persian Gulf but did not elaborate. U.S. RQ-4 Global Hawks are stationed at the Al-Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates, near the capital, Abu Dhabi. AP journalists saw the drones on the base’s tarmac during a March 2016 visit by then-Vice President Joe Biden.

The CENTCOM statement said the RQ-4A Global Hawk maritime surveillance drone was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile while in international airspace over the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which 20% of all global oil moves.

The U.S. has been worried about international shipping through the strait since the limpet mine attacks in May and June.

“Iranian reports that the aircraft was over Iran are false,” CENTCOM said, adding that “this was an unprovoked attack on a U.S. surveillance asset in international airspace.”

In Iran, Salami, speaking to a crowd in the western city of Sanandaj, described the American drone as “violating our national security border.”

“Borders are our red line,” Salami said. “Any enemy that violates the borders will be annihilated.”

Iran’s Foreign Ministry separately protested the drone, saying it entered Iranian territory.

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