President Donald Trump said Friday that he called off an attack on Iran just as the US was "cocked & loaded" to strike because he decided there would be too many deaths for a proportionate response to the downing of a US drone earlier this week.
"We were cocked & loaded to retaliate last night on 3 different sights (sic) when I asked, how many will die. 150 people, sir, was the answer from a General," Trump tweeted. "10 minutes before the strike I stopped it."
Causing so many casualties, Trump tweeted, would not have been "proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone."
Trump added that he is in "no hurry," touted the US military as "by far the best in the world" and said he had imposed new sanctions against Iran "last night."
It was unclear what sanctions Trump was referring to. CNN has reached out to the Treasury Department and National Security Council for comment. It's also unclear why the President only learned of the casualty estimates after he had first ordered the attack and minutes before the US strikes were to hit their targets.
The US has been in a standoff with Iran, with US military or diplomatic responses having the potential to provoke further escalation from Tehran. Iran's downing of the drone earlier Thursday has left the President caught between Republicans demanding a response and congressional Democrats warning that Trump -- and the Iran policy hardliners on his national security staff, who welcome the confrontation -- could lose control of the situation and lead the US into war.
The US military targets were a limited set of Iranian radars and missile batteries, said a US official with direct knowledge of the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information. No US weapons had been launched when the decision was made to call off the strikes, which were first reported by The New York Times.
Military and diplomatic officials were expecting a strike as late as 7 p.m. ET on Thursday after intense debate among Trump's top national security officials and congressional leaders at the White House, multiple senior administration officials involved in or briefed on the deliberations told the Times. The strike had been scheduled for just before dawn on Friday in Iran to minimize the risk to civilians and the Iranian military, and military officials received word shortly after then that the strike was off, at least temporarily, the Times reported.
On Friday, Seyed Abbas Mousavi, a spokesman for Iran's Foreign Ministry said his country "responds to diplomacy with diplomacy, respect with respect, and to war with decisive defense."
Trump strikes different chord than top aides
Earlier Thursday, before the reports surfaced, a senior White House official told CNN that Trump and national security adviser John Bolton were engaged in an ongoing debate about how to handle Iran.
Trump had moved to ease tensions with Tehran by striking a starkly different tone from Bolton and other senior security aides. Calling the shootdown "a new wrinkle, a new fly in the ointment," Trump told reporters in the Oval Office he finds it "hard to believe it was intentional."
Earlier in the day, Trump had tweeted that "Iran made a very big mistake!" as he and his national security officials huddled to weigh possible responses. Some lawmakers called for restraint and others warned Iran should prepare for "severe pain."
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, a CNN military analyst, told CNN's Don Lemon Thursday on "CNN Tonight" that disagreement within the administration about whether to attack is not unusual for a White House.
"That's something that occurs at any strategic decision level," Hertling said, "when you're mitigating risk or you're attempting to understand what the risk might be based on the processes of war gaming and determining what your objectives are."
Iran releases purported image of drone
The US claims the drone was in international airspace over the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world's most vital shipping routes, while Iran says the drone was over its territory.
Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps on Friday released the first images of what it says are pieces of the drone, state media outlet IRIB reported.
Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the commander of the aerospace force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, said some parts of the downed American drone were recovered from Iranian territorial waters near the Kooh Mubarak area, Iran's Tasnim news agency reports. He said the drone was issued a final warning 10 minutes before it was downed.
Earlier Thursday, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a notice that it was prohibiting US flights over the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman due to rising tensions. Airlines that operate flights in the region said Friday that they would adjust their operations.
Reports of the aborted attack drew swift reaction from Democrats angling to challenge Trump in 2020.
Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts tweeted that "there is no justification" for escalating tensions with Iran.
"Donald Trump promised to bring our troops home. Instead he has pulled out of a deal that was working and instigated another unnecessary conflict," she wrote. "There is no justification for further escalating this crisis -- we need to step back from the brink of war."
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, an Iraq War veteran, tweeted that war with Iran is "HIGHLY likely unless Trump swallows his pride & returns to the Iran nuclear agreement he tore up," referring to the Obama-era pact.