WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump declared Thursday that "Iran made a very big mistake" in shooting down a U.S. drone, increasing tensions and talk of possible open conflict in a test of wills over America's pullout from an international nuclear agreement and its economic sanctions that are crippling Tehran's economy.
Iran and its proxies have been pushing back against the Trump administration's "maximum pressure" campaign, raising fears that a miscalculation could trigger armed conflict. Iran has been blamed by the U.S. for recent attacks on other nations' shipping vessels, but the downing of the huge drone was the first direct Iranian assault against the United States.
"Iran made a very big mistake!" President Trump tweeted.
American and Iranian officials are disputing the circumstances of the incident. Iran's Revolutionary Guard said it shot down the drone over Iranian airspace . The U.S. military is calling the downing an "unprovoked attack" and said it occurred over international airspace in the Strait of Hormuz.
President Trump has said repeatedly that the U.S. does not want war in the Mideast, yet members of Congress reacted quickly with that possibility as background.
The Senate's top Democrat called the downing of the American drone "deeply concerning" and accused the administration of not having an Iran strategy and keeping Congress and the American people in the dark.
"The president needs to explain to the American people why he's driving us toward another endless conflict in the Middle East," said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she doesn't think President Trump wants war with Iran and the American people have "no appetite" for it either.
She said the U.S. needs to be "strong and strategic" about protecting its interests and "cannot be reckless."
Talking tougher, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called Iran a "murderous regime" and blamed Tehran for the current tension. Graham, who spoke with President Trump by telephone Thursday morning, said the Iranians have rebuffed the president's willingness to negotiate by refusing to respond to a letter from President Trump that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently hand-delivered.
"Not only did the Iranians give a provocative oral response, but they also attacked a Japanese oil tanker at the same time," Graham said, referring to the attack on Kokuka Courageous, a Japanese tanker carrying Saudi methanol that was traveling in the Gulf of Oman. Iran has denied involvement.
As for the possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons, Graham said it's imperative that the U.S. clearly tell the Iranians that any attempt to increase uranium enrichment will be seen as a "hostile act against the United States and our allies in Israel and will not go unanswered." Graham added that if a U.S. military response is necessary, it should be focused on Iranian naval assets and oil refineries, which are the economic lifeblood of the country.
Iran has quadrupled its production of low-enriched uranium and threatened to boost its enrichment closer to weapons-grade levels, trying to pressure Europe for new terms to the 2015 nuclear deal that Iran struck with the U.S. and other world powers.
In recent weeks, the U.S. has sped an aircraft carrier to the Mideast and deployed additional troops alongside the tens of thousands already in the region. From Yemen, the Houthis have launched bomb-laden drones into neighboring Saudi Arabia. The administration insists those steps were taken as a deterrent to intelligence reports of Iranian plots to attack the U.S. and its allies in the region.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said President Trump was briefed Wednesday night and again Thursday morning about the new incident. She said the administration also would keep in touch with lawmakers on Capitol Hill where lawmakers have demanded briefings on the U.S. conflict with Iran.