U.S. President Donald Trump approved airstrikes Thursday evening against Tehran in retaliation for the downing of an American surveillance drone but pulled back, The New York Times reported.
Citing multiple officials from the Trump administration, the Times said the White House hosted intense debates and discussions among Trump's senior national security officials and congressional leaders over a response against Tehran.
"As late as 7 p.m., military and diplomatic officials were expecting a strike," said the report, adding the U.S. president approved a couple of military targets including radar and missile batteries.
Iran and the U.S. dispute the drone’s location when it was downed. Tehran maintains the drone violated its airspace while Washington says it was in international airspace.
Later in the day, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif also shared the coordinates of where the drone was shot down and announced that the wreckage fell into Iran’s territorial waters.
A senior official said planes were flying in the air and ships were in position until the attack was aborted, according to the report.
If the airstrike went ahead, it would have been Trump's third military action in the Middle East after 2017 and 2018 airstrikes in Syria.
The report said it remained unclear whether the airstrike might still go forward.
"The strike was set to take place just before dawn Friday in Iran to minimize risk to the Iranian military and civilians," the Times added.
In the Oval Office while meeting Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Trump said the public will "find out" what the U.S. response will be to the drone downing.
"Iran made a big mistake. This drone was in international waters, clearly," Trump said.
In a fresh development late Thursday, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued an emergency order prohibiting U.S. airline operators from flying over parts of Iran-controlled airspace, according to Reuters news agency.
Tensions have been rising between the U.S. and Iran since last year, when Washington unilaterally withdrew from a landmark 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany and the EU.
The U.S. has since embarked upon a diplomatic and economic campaign to ramp up pressure on Iran to force it to renegotiate the agreement.
Part of its campaign has included the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions on exports of Iranian crude oil, which has sent the Iranian economy into a nosedive.
The U.S. has also increased its military presence in the Middle East, deploying a carrier strike force, bomber task force and Patriot missile battery and using threats from Iran as justification for the actions.
On Monday, the Trump administration announced it would be sending an additional 1,000 troops to the Middle East, citing increased threats from Iran.
By Servet Gunerigok in Washington