Since news broke that President Donald Trump had approved, and then abruptly canceled, a military strike on targets in Iran, the press, analysts, and even government officials have struggled to articulate exactly what it was that made the president change his mind.
The aborted strikes, first reported in the New York Times, were meant as a response to Iran shooting down a US surveillance drone earlier this week. The choice to halt the military mission came, the Times said, when "[p]lanes were in the air and ships were in position, but no missiles had been fired." But as of Friday afternoon, it was hard to get a clear answer on what led to the mission being called off, with multiple theories being reported as the reason for the sudden U-turn.
Reason #1: Trump learned Iran's leaders hadn't wanted the drone shot down.
One possibility is that the US learned that Iranian leadership never actually ordered that the US drone — which Tehran says was in Iranian airspace and Washington says was over international waters — be shot down.
"The Iranian national leadership was furious with the tactical commander that shot down the drone because they clearly did not want that provocation to take place," Jack Keane, a retired US general, told Fox Business on Friday morning. "Based on those facts, new information to the president, he called off the strike.”
Trump had speculated as much in the Oval Office on Thursday during a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. "I have a big, big feeling" that someone made a mistake, the president told reporters, adding that he thought it was someone "loose and stupid who did it."
Reason #2: Trump learned the potential casualty count.
But Trump himself unleashed a tweet thread on Friday morning with a different reasoning, claiming that he'd issued the stand-down order only 10 minutes before the strike was to take place after learning that 150 Iranians could be killed during the bombing.
While concerns over whether an attack with that many dead is disproportionate are valid, officials told the Washington Post that the president had actually been briefed earlier on Thursday about the potential casualties and still gave the green light.
Reasons #3 and #4: The planes would've been shot at or the president worried about the economic impact.
Meanwhile, two US officials gave one Vox reporter two entirely different answers on why Trump pulled back: "One official said warplanes that could evade Iran’s air defenses, like the B-2 stealth bomber, weren’t ready during the time picked — early morning in Iran — to avoid as many civilian and military casualties as possible. Another said Trump worried an attack might set off an oil shock and hurt the American economy."
Reason #5: Tucker Carlson convinced Trump to abort.
And, as the Washington Post's Josh Rogin tweeted, there's not a small amount of speculation in Washington that Trump could have made the decision to call off the strikes while watching Fox News host Tucker Carlson's show on Thursday night. Carlson, the Daily Beast reported on Wednesday, has reached out to the president directly to advise him against attacking Iran and spent last night's show railing against the calls for war coming from Washington.
A White House spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on which of the reasons given were true or untrue.
All of this taken as an aggregate shows that there's no real agreement — even, it seems, inside the United States government — about what just happened.
The end result "could have been a good outcome after a bad process," a former senior defense official told BuzzFeed News. "I think it's entirely possible that we in the Obama administration fetishized a good policy process a little too much and that perhaps made our decision-making on key national security issues a little slow at times."
"I think most people at the Pentagon would prefer that very deliberate process over what we see now, where it’s not really clear how decisions are made," the official, who asked for anonymity as they were not cleared by their present employer to speak to the press, said. "I don’t know if anyone could go from the Pentagon to Congress to brief them on what the White House’s strategy is."
The last few weeks have seen the administration's "maximum pressure" campaign on Iran, which has included crippling economic sanctions and the movements of forces to the Middle East to deter attacks on US assets, ratcheted up even further as Tehran has begun to show a dwindling patience for the US's policies. Iran has been accused of sabotaging several tanker ships near the Strait of Hormuz and recently announced that it would begin to produce low-enrichment uranium beyond the limits of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Some analysts see the Iranian actions as a response to the US sanctions, which were put into place last year after the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the deal.
By all accounts, the run-up to the decision to attack Iranian military assets was contentious inside the administration. National security adviser John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and CIA Director Gina Haspel were all reportedly in favor of the attack. Pompeo has been particularly public with his advocacy, warning that any US service member's death because of an attack by Iran or one of its proxies would provoke a response.
On the other side, less certain about the mission, were the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the president himself. Trump has been a vocal critic of the Iranian regime for years but campaigned hard on keeping the United States from going to war in the Middle East yet again.
Danielle Pletka, the senior vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said in a phone interview with BuzzFeed News that any observer "watching what’s happening doesn’t understand how the president is thinking about the challenge of Iran, except to understand that his main aim is to get the Iranians back to the negotiating table."
(Sen. Lindsey Graham, a longtime supporter of confronting Iran, meanwhile, told the Washington Post that the Iranians are the ones "trying to break our will and intimidate us to come to the negotiating table.")
"The lack of clarity is the biggest problem, because at the end of the day, it is completely unclear what the president’s endgame is here," Pletka said. "What is the endgame? Is he about deterring the Iranians? And if not, what is he allowing to go unpunished? A direct attack on American resources."
"The process has been entirely incoherent from the beginning," she said.
That uncertainty, while concerning to US citizens, is likely even more inscrutable to the Iranians and could lead to a misunderstanding that escalates the crisis. While an Iranian official told Reuters that Trump had passed on a message through Oman warning that a strike was coming if Tehran didn't come to the table to talk, both the US and Iran pushed back against that reporting on Friday.
"The Iranians are fully aware of the strategic confusion of this administration and have tried to take advantage of it," Ali Vaez, the head of the International Crisis Group's Iran Project, told BuzzFeed News in an email. "But in the President's unpredictability lies a major risk of miscalculation for Tehran."
"The fact that the President mobilized US forces but didn't pull the trigger, might in his eyes have sent a strong message of deterrence to Tehran, whereas it could have given credence to the Iranian view that Trump's aversion to another war in the Middle East gives them plenty of space to move back against Washington's maximum pressure strategy," Vaez continued.
Nonetheless, there are still reports that the strike may proceed as planned on Friday evening. If so, what can be certain is that the Iranian response won't be long in coming. What the United States chooses to do after that? That's a bit harder to answer.
Gina Haspel's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this post.