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.
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.
Iran said earlier that it shot down the drone after it violated its territorial airspace. Guastella disputed that contention, telling reporters that the unmanned aircraft was 34 kilometers from the nearest Iranian territory and flying at high altitude when struck by a surface-to-air missile.
The downing of the drone follows of weeks of escalating tensions in the Middle East, starting with the U.S. announcement last month that it was rushing an aircraft carrier strike group and other military assets to the Persian Gulf area in response to Iranian threats.
The Trump administration has been putting increasing economic pressure for more than a year. It reinstated punishing sanctions following Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of an international agreement intended to limit Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for relief from earlier sanctions.
Trump has said repeatedly that the U.S. does not want war in the Mideast, yet members of Congress reacted quickly with that possibility as background.
The Senate’s top Democrat called the downing of the American drone “deeply concerning” and accused the administration of not having an Iran strategy and keeping Congress and the American people in the dark.
“The president needs to explain to the American people why he’s driving us toward another endless conflict in the Middle East,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she doesn’t think Trump wants war with Iran and the American people have “no appetite” for it either.
She said the U.S. needs to be “strong and strategic” about protecting its interests and “cannot be reckless.”
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