Despite calling off a military strike against Iran, the U.S. is still poised to hit Iran hard after weeks of mounting tensions between the two countries, President Trump said on Sunday, in what appeared to be a coordinated effort by the administration to keep the pressure on Tehran.
Trump in an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press” said he is “not looking for war” with Iran, but warned of "obliteration like you've never seen before” if Iran resumes its efforts to build nuclear weapons.
Vice President Mike Pence told Jake Tapper on “State of the Union” that “Iran should not mistake restraint for a lack of resolve.
“All options remain on the table,” he added.
And National Security Adviser John Bolton, in Israel for a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, pointedly noted that Trump had “just stopped the strike from going forward... at this time,” and warned that another attack could occur at any time. Trump noted that Bolton was one of the administration’s leading “hawks.”
“If it was up to him he'd take on the whole world at one time," the president told “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd.
On Friday, Trump said the U.S. military was "cocked & loaded" for a retaliatory strike after Iran shot down a U.S. military drone near its coast. The shootdown came after attacks on two tankers in the Gulf, which the administration has also blamed on Iran. The president said he canceled the authorized strikes at the last minute to avoid Iranian casualties.
"Nothing is greenlighted until the very end because things change," Trump said when Todd asked if planes were already in the air.
But when they were “about ready to go,” Trump said he asked his generals, "How many people would be killed, in this case Iranians?"
Informed there would be approximately 150 casualties, Trump said, “I thought about it for a second and I said, you know what, they shot down an unmanned drone, plane, whatever you want to call it, and here we are sitting with a 150 dead people that would have taken place probably within a half an hour after I said go ahead. And I didn't like it...I didn't think it was proportionate."
Instead of military strikes, Trump announced plans to further impose “major” sanctions on Iran beginning Monday and asserted to Todd that he believes “they want to make a deal,” but there would be no preconditions for negotiations with Tehran.
Last year, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo outlined 12 non-negotiable conditions for an agreement with Iran, but those are apparently off the table.
Instead, Trump said his bottom-line demand was that Iran give up any efforts to build nuclear weapons. "They cannot have a nuclear weapon. They’d use it. And they’re not going to have a nuclear weapon,” Trump said. "And if you want to talk about it, good. Otherwise, you can live in a shattered economy for a long time to come."
Tensions between the U.S. and Iran have continued to rise after Trump last year pulled out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which limited Iran’s nuclear program in Tehran in exchange for relief from sanctions. Since pulling out of the agreement, the U.S. has re-imposed sanctions on Iran.
Then in April, Trump labeled the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist group and in the following month announced the deployment a bomber task force and carrier strike group to the Middle East to send a “clear and unmistakable message" to Iran after “a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings.”
On Monday, the Trump administration announced the deployment of 1,000 additional troops and extra military resources to the Persian Gulf region.
Iran denied responsibility for the attacks, but American administration and intelligence officials aren’t buying it. As Yahoo News first reported last week, the Pentagon secretly launched a retaliatory digital strike back against Iranian cyberspies who were targeting U.S. commercial ships.
The attack on the U.S. drone Thursday, announced by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and confirmed by the Pentagon, heightened tensions further. Iran said the plane had crossed into its territory while the Pentagon insisted it was flying over international waters in the Strait of Hormuz and was taken down in an “unprovoked attack.”
Trump warned Iran that it made “a very big mistake,” but later said he believed it wasn’t intentional. Then he authorized a retaliatory strike but called it off.
Reuters reported that Trump sent a message to Tehran to warn of the imminent attack, which would have targeted a limited set of Iranian radars and missile batteries, but the president dismissed those reports.
“I did not send that message,” Trump said. “I don’t know who would’ve said that.”
Vice President Mike Pence defended Trump’s decision to call off the strike Sunday, saying they weren’t convinced the drone attack was “authorized at the highest levels” in the Iranian government.
"The President also had doubts as to whether or not the downing of our unmanned aircraft was actually authorized at the highest levels," Pence told CNN's Jake Tapper on "State of the Union." "We're not convinced that it was authorized at the highest levels.”
But Pence made it clear that “we're not going to allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon, and we're not going to stand by while Iran continues to sow malign influence across the region.”
He reiterated that the U.S. is “prepared to talk to Iran without preconditions.” “The one precondition is.... they need to give up the nuclear weapons,” he added.
In light of the tankers and drone attacks, Pence said Iran was “lashing out even more than they usually do” over sanctions since the U.S. walked away from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018.