If you were wondering just how close America was to war with Iran, the answer, apparently, is “hours”.
According to the New York Times, both the military and diplomatic personnel were anticipating strikes “as late as 7 PM Thursday”, in retaliation for the IRGC’s decision to shoot down a US surveillance drone.
Earlier Thursday, while seated opposite Justin Trudeau at the White House, Trump appeared to play down the incident, suggesting it might have been a mistake, carried out by a “loose” general without the green light from Tehran.
But, according to multiple senior officials who spoke to the Times, the president approved strikes on “a handful of Iranian targets, like radar and missile batteries”, and the plans were in place through Thursday evening.
In fact, the sources said “the operation was underway in its early stages” before Trump ultimately called it off. To wit:
Planes were in the air and ships were in position, but no missiles had been fired when word came to stand down, the official said. It was not clear whether Mr. Trump simply changed his mind on the strikes or whether the administration altered course because of logistics or strategy. It was also not clear whether the attacks might still go forward.
Notably, nobody at the White House or the Pentagon requested the Times withhold the article, although the administration and the military declined to comment.
Apparently, the US planned to strike the targets just before dawn on Friday in Iran in order to “minimize risk to the Iranian military or to civilians”. In other words, the plan was to destroy some stuff, send a message and not kill too many people.
Unsurprisingly, Mike Pompeo and John Bolton were in favor of a military response, as was Gina Haspel. The Pentagon, however, warned it was risky and could lead to further escalations. (But hey, what does the Pentagon know about war, right?)
Congress was briefed, according to the Times.
The strikes, had they gone ahead, would have marked the most serious escalation yet in the increasingly tense standoff between Washington and Tehran. Earlier this week, Iran said it planned to be in violation of the key elements of the nuclear accord within days and, in addition to shooting down the US drone, the IRGC-backed Houthis lobbed a missile at a Saudi power station.
The drama comes on the one-week anniversary of an incident in the Gulf of Oman which disabled two oil tankers. The US blamed Tehran, while the Iranians denied involvement.
It is not clear if the strikes are still on the table, but, obviously, the fact that the Pentagon did not ask the Times to withhold the article suggests the strategy is to try and deter the Iranians by letting everyone know just how close of a call this really was.
This is all highly disconcerting as it represents, in some ways, the sum of all fears and validates critics’ concerns about the implications of letting John Bolton play a key role in shaping the administration’s foreign policy.
It will be interesting to see what the president tweets in response to this article from “the failing New York Times”. One imagines this is one piece of reporting he won’t claim is “fake news”.