WASHINGTON — President Trump approved military strikes against Iran in retaliation for downing an American surveillance drone, but pulled back from launching them on Thursday night after a day of escalating tensions.
As late as 7 p.m., military and diplomatic officials were expecting a strike, after intense discussions and debate at the White House among the president’s top national security officials and congressional leaders, according to multiple senior administration officials involved in or briefed on the deliberations.
Officials said the president had initially approved attacks on a handful of Iranian targets, like radar and missile batteries.
The operation was underway in its early stages when it was called off, a senior administration official said. 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.
The abrupt reversal put a halt to what would have been the president’s third military action against targets in the Middle East. Mr. Trump had struck twice at targets in Syria, in 2017 and 2018.
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.
Asked about the plans for a strike and the decision to hold back, the White House declined to comment, as did Pentagon officials. No government officials asked The New York Times to withhold the article.
The retaliation plan was intended as a response to the shooting down of the unmanned, $130 million surveillance drone, which was struck Thursday morning by an Iranian surface-to-air missile, according to a senior administration official who was briefed on the military planning and spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential plans.
The strike was set to take place just before dawn Friday in Iran to minimize risk to the Iranian military and civilians.