Mounting tensions between Washington and Iran have raised fears of a military confrontation – but how did we get here?
Iran will respond firmly to any US threat against it, a spokesman of the country’s Foreign Ministry has said after President Donald Trump warned it of “obliteration” if a full-scale conflict would ensue.
“We will not allow any violation against Iran’s borders. Iran will firmly confront any aggression or threat by America,” spokesman Abbas Mousavi told the semiofficial Tasnim news agency on Saturday.
Tensions between Tehran and Washington have spiked since Thursday when an Iranian missile destroyed a US Global Hawk surveillance drone flying near the Iranian coast.
Tehran said the drone was shot down over its territory and Washington said it occurred in international airspace.
“Regardless of any decision they (US officials) make, we will not allow the Islamic Republic’s territory to be violated,” Mousavi said.
Under pressure to respond to the high-stakes incident near the strategic Strait of Hormuz, Trump said the United States was prepared to hit “3 different sites” on Thursday night but that he scrapped the strikes “10 minutes” before they were to have been launched.
“I asked, how many will die. 150 people, sir, was the answer from a General,” the president tweeted, adding, he concluded it would not have been “proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone”.
In an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press” at the White House on Friday morning, Trump said he had not given final approval to strikes against Iran, and that no planes were in the air.
“But they would have been pretty soon. And things would have happened to a point where you wouldn’t turn back or couldn’t turn back,” he said, adding that he did not want war with Iran, but if it came to pass, there would be “obliteration like you’ve never seen before”.
The US president had struck a combative tone in initial comments on Thursday about Iran shooting down the Global Hawk surveillance aircraft, but as the pre-dawn incident whipped up fears of open conflict, Trump moved to dial back tensions.
Iran vowed on Friday to defend its borders after downing the drone, with the commander of the aerospace arm of its elite Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) saying the aircraft was warned twice before it was engaged over the Gulf of Oman.
And it denied a report that Trump had warned it via Oman of an impending attack unless it was willing to negotiate.
The US special representative on Iran, Brian Hook, accused Tehran of rejecting diplomatic overtures to de-escalate regional tensions.
“Iran needs to meet diplomacy with diplomacy, not military force,” Hook told reporters in Saudi Arabia.
Amid the tensions, Trump late on Friday nominated Mark Esper to be Secretary of Defense, one of the most powerful posts in the US government and a key adviser to the president as Washington navigates the dispute with Iran.
The US has not had a full-time defence secretary since the resignation of James Mattis in December last year. Esper, who was elevated to acting Pentagon chief this week, still needs to be confirmed by the Senate.
On the streets of Tehran, anxiety over a potential war was added to residents’ concerns over crippling US sanctions.
“For me, the situation is already worrying because the economic state of the country is bad, and the possibility of war frightens me,” said Amir, a shopkeeper who withheld his last name.
Iran said on Friday it had presented the Swiss ambassador, whose country represents US interests in Iran, with “indisputable” evidence the drone violated Iranian airspace.
The US Federal Aviation Administration has barred American civilian aircraft from the area “until further notice” and major non-US airlines, including British Airways, KLM, Lufthansa, Qantas, Emirates and Etihad, said they too were altering flight paths to avoid the sensitive Strait of Hormuz.
The Pentagon says the Global Hawk drone – one of the most expensive pieces of equipment in the US arsenal, costing over $120m apiece – was 34km from Iran when destroyed by a surface-to-air missile in an “unprovoked attack”.
It published a map of the drone’s flight path indicating it avoided Iranian waters, but Tehran provided its own map showing the aircraft inside its territory when it was downed by a domestically-manufactured Khordad 3 air defence battery.
The shootdown came with Iran already accused by Washington of carrying out attacks on tankers in the congested shipping lanes heading out of the Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz.
Tehran denies any involvement.
Trump has repeatedly said he does not favour war with Iran unless it is to stop the country getting a nuclear weapon – something Iranian leaders insist they are not pursuing.
But critics say his policy of “maximum pressure” – including the abandonment of an international deal to regulate Iran’s nuclear activities, economic sanctions and deployment of extra troops to the region – make war ever more likely.
US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi warned on Friday of “an extremely dangerous and sensitive situation”, but said she was “absolutely” pleased with Trump’s decision not to carry out the attack.
Candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination also expressed concerns, with Senator Bernie Sanders warning war with Iran would “lead to endless conflict in the region” and Senator Elizabeth Warren urging “to step back from the brink of war”.