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Iran defiant over drone downing as Trump reportedly aborts military strikes

President Trump speaks to members of the media on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, before boarding Marine One helicopter, Wednesday, April 10, 2019. (Star Tribune/TNS/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Iran says it has “indisputable” evidence that an unmanned U.S. surveillance drone it shot down on June 20 violated Iranian airspace.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry made the statement on June 21, just hours after U.S. media reported that President Donald Trump had approved and then canceled retaliatory military strikes against Iran.

Meanwhile, Reuters quoted Iranian government officials as saying that Iran received a message from Trump via Oman overnight warning of an imminent attack on Iran and calling for talks.

The Iranian officials told Reuters that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was against having “any kind of talks” with the United States, but he would be given the message about the imminent attack.

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The U.S. military says the $160 million unmanned surveillance aircraft was flying over the Strait of Hormuz in international airspace when it was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile.

But Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) maintains it shot down a U.S. “spy” drone that had turned off its tracking equipment as it flew over Iran’s southern province of Hormozgan — saying the flight was a clear crossing of “our red line.”

In its June 21 statement, Iran’s Foreign Ministry said “even some parts of the drone’s wreckage have been retrieved from Iran’s territorial waters.”

“We hope that our enemies do not make such mistakes again,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Musavi said in an interview with state broadcaster IRIB on June 21. “We have informed the UN and lodged a protest there against this clear and provocative violation of the United States.”

The downing of the drone came amid escalating tensions between Tehran and Washington. The United States has blamed Tehran for a series of attacks on oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz — including two tankers that were attacked in the Gulf of Oman on June 13.

The New York Times reported that Trump had approved military strikes against Iran but it said he “abruptly” called off the mission during the night of June 20.

The Times report said that as late as 7 p.m. on June 20 — after “intense discussions and debate” at the White House — military and diplomatic officials were expecting a strike.

Trump’s top national-security officials and congressional leaders were involved in the discussions, according to the Times, which cited multiple senior administration officials involved in or briefed on the talks. It did not identify the officials.

According to a U.S. official who spoke to AP, the strikes were recommended by the Pentagon and were among the options presented to senior administration officials.

Officials said Trump had initially approved attacks on several Iranian targets, including radar and missile batteries, the Times reported.

The report said the strike was to take place just before dawn on June 21 to minimize the risk to Iranian military personnel or to civilians.

One senior administration official said the operation was under way in its early stages when it was called off.

The Times was told by the official that planes were in the air and ships were in position, but no missiles had been fired when word came to call off the mission.

The paper said it was not clear whether Trump “simply changed his mind on the strikes or whether the administration altered course because of logistics or strategy.”

The Times said White House and Pentagon officials declined to officially comment on the report. But it added that no administration official asked the paper to withhold the article.

Trump gave two apparently contradictory indications regarding the incident.

Early on June 20, he wrote on Twitter that “Iran made a very big mistake” by shooting down the drone.

Asked whether the United States would strike Iran in retaliation, “You’ll soon find out,” he said.

Hours later, however, he appeared to play down the incident, saying it likely was an error by “a general or somebody.”

“I think probably Iran made a mistake — I would imagine it was a general or somebody that made a mistake in shooting that drone down,” he told reporters at the White House.

“We had nobody in the drone. It would have made a big difference, let me tell you, it would have made a big, big difference” if the aircraft had carried a pilot, Trump said as he met Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the White House.

“It’s hard to believe it was intentional, if you want to know the truth,” he added. He suggested it could have been carried out by someone who was acting “loose and stupid” and characterized the incident as “a new wrinkle…a new fly in the ointment.”