(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump downplayed Iran’s attack on a U.S. Navy drone in the Persian Gulf that escalated regional tensions and fueled a surge in oil prices, suggesting a “loose and stupid” individual may have been responsible for the strike.
“I would imagine it was a general or somebody who made a mistake by shooting that drone down,” Trump said during an Oval Office meeting Thursday with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. “I find it hard to believe it was intentional. It could have been somebody who was loose and stupid.”
In a story published earlier Thursday by Iranian state-run media, an Iranian military officer said the drone was shot down in order to send a “clear message.”
U.S. and Iranian officials continue to argue whether the high-altitude drone was over international or Iranian waters when it was shot down after weeks of rising tensions over a spate of attacks in the region. Trump said the drone was “clearly” in international waters, and went on to say that the U.S. “will not stand for it, that I can tell you.”
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Yet it was the second time in a week that Trump sought to minimize Iranian actions against U.S. interests, even as some of his advisers and closest congressional allies urged a forcible response. Earlier this week Trump called an attack on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman a “minor issue.” During his comments Thursday, he called the drone attack “a new fly in the ointment.”
While Trump has ratcheted up economic sanctions on Iran as part of his “maximum pressure” campaign against the Islamic Republic, he has also said he doesn’t want a war with Tehran and he campaigned in 2016 on withdrawing the U.S. from intractable Middle East conflicts.
Yet regional analysts and lawmakers from both parties warned that the likelihood of a bigger confrontation could be looming, whether intentional or not.
“The president may not intend to go to war here but we’re worried that he and the administration may bumble into a war,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, told reporters Thursday after a briefing at the White House.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Trump ally and member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said he would “encourage the president to deliver an unequivocal message that there is a cost to doing this. So if they’re itching for a fight, they’re going to get one.”
The U.S. said the Global Hawk drone was flying in international airspace about 34 kilometers (20 miles) away from Iranian territory when it was shot down over the Strait of Hormuz, an oil choke point.
“This was an unprovoked attack on a U.S. surveillance asset in international airspace,” said Navy Captain Bill Urban, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command.
The episode stoked tensions throughout the Gulf, which supplies one-third of the world’s oil.
“We will defend Iran’s airspace and maritime boundaries with all our might,” Ali Shamkhani, secretary for the Supreme National Security Council, was quoted as saying by state-run Iranian Students’ News Agency. “It doesn’t matter which country’s aircraft cross our airspace.”
A spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on both sides to “exercise maximum restraint and avoid any action that could inflame the situation.” Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that a war “would be a catastrophe for the region.”
Trump was briefed on the drone incident Thursday in a meeting with National Security Adviser John Bolton, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan. The region has been volatile since the U.S. tightened sanctions on Iranian oil sales in early May, sent military reinforcements to the region and redoubled efforts to prevent Iran and Europe from finding a way around trade penalties imposed after Trump withdrew from a 2015 nuclear accord.
Frictions flared further last week after an attack on two oil tankers outside the entrance to the Gulf. Tehran denied involvement in the incidents.
Adding to strains, Iran on Monday warned European nations that it would breach the multilateral nuclear accord, which had traded some sanctions relief for limits on Tehran’s nuclear program, as soon as June 27 unless they find a way to circumvent U.S. penalties.
“We are seeing an escalation and the frequency of attacks is concerning even though they are still mostly minor,’’ said Renad Mansour, a research fellow in the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House. “People across the region are starting to make preparation for the possibility of a trigger coming from somewhere.’’
The tensions come with the Pentagon’s leadership in flux. Shanahan is scheduled to hand over responsibility for the Defense Department to Army Secretary Mark Esper on Sunday night. It’s not clear if Esper will be Trump’s choice to permanently lead the Pentagon, which is approaching its seventh month without a confirmed secretary in charge.
On Thursday, former Vice President Joe Biden, the front-runner in the Democratic presidential race, said Trump’s Iran strategy is a “self-inflicted disaster” and blamed the stepped up hostilities on U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear accord.
West Texas Intermediate oil surged as much as 6.1%, the most this year, and was trading $2.93 higher at $56.69 a barrel as of 1:01 p.m. EST.
Attacks on regional oil infrastructure since mid-May have helped whipsaw oil prices. A measure of price volatility for the benchmark U.S. crude grade reached a five-month high on Monday, pulled between the threat of disrupted supply and mounting concern that trade wars will weaken demand.
The drone downing also followed a missile strike by Iranian-backed Yemeni rebels overnight on Saudi Arabia. A news agency operated by Houthi rebels in Yemen said that they had hit a power station in Jazan, on the southwestern coast of Saudi Arabia, with a cruise missile. The official Saudi Press Agency later said a projectile fired from Yemen had fallen near a desalination plant, causing no damage or casualties.
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--With assistance from Golnar Motevalli, Verity Ratcliffe, Anthony DiPaola, Alexei Anishchuk, Margaret Talev, Arsalan Shahla, David Wainer, David Marino and Daniel Flatley.
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