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Trump says he aborted retaliatory strike as Iran warns it will 'firmly confront' any US threats

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US President Donald Trump's decision to cancel a planned attack on three sites suggests he wants a diplomatic solution to the continuing tensions with Iran.

US President Donald Trump has said he aborted a military strike to retaliate for Iran's downing of an unmanned US drone because it could have killed 150 people, and signalled he was open to talks with Tehran.

An Iranian surface-to-air missile destroyed a US Global Hawk surveillance drone on Thursday. Tehran said the drone was shot down over its territory and Washington said it occurred in international airspace over the Strait of Hormuz.

The incident aggravated fears of a direct military clash between the longtime foes. 

Trump's decision to cancel what he said was a planned attack on three sites suggests he wants a diplomatic solution to end weeks of festering tensions with Iran, which Washington accuses of a spate of attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf region.

"I'm not looking for war, and if there is, it'll be obliteration like you've never seen before. But I'm not looking to do that," Trump told NBC News in an interview aired on Friday night.

According to excerpts of an interview with NBC's "Meet the Press" conducted Friday morning at the White House, 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.

The US President had struck a combative tone in initial comments 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.

'Firmly confront'

Iran will respond firmly to any US threat against it, the semi-official Tasnim news agency reported on Saturday, citing foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi.

"We will not allow any violation against Iran's borders. Iran will firmly confront any aggression or threat by America," he told Tasnim.

Tehran said the drone was shot down over its territory and Washington said it occurred in international airspace. 

"Regardless of any decision they (U.S. officials) make, we will not allow the Islamic Republic’s territory to be violated,” Mousavi said.

Elsewhere, armed forces general staff spokesman Brigadier General Abolfazl Shekarchi told Tasnim: "Firing one bullet towards Iran will set fire to the interests of America and its allies.

"Today, the situation in the region is to Iran’s advantage.

"If the enemy - especially America and its allies in the region - make the military mistake of shooting the powder keg on which America's interests lie, the region will be set on fire," Shekarchi warned.

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Iran has vowed to defend its borders after downing the drone, with the commander of the aerospace arm of its elite Revolutionary Guards 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 deescalate regional tensions.

"Iran needs to meet diplomacy with diplomacy, not military force," Hook told reporters in Saudi Arabia.

 

Amid the tensions, Trump late Friday nominated Mark Esper to be Secretary of Defense, one of the most powerful posts in the US government and a key advisor to the president as Washington navigates the dispute with Iran.

The US hasn't had a full defence secretary since the resignation of James Mattis in December last year. Esper, who this week was elevated to acting Pentagon chief, still needs to be confirmed by the Senate.

Oil prices edged down slightly Friday following the previous day's surge of more than six per cent, while the price of gold -- seen as a safe haven asset -- struck near six-year highs.

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.

A handout photo made available by Iran's state TV (IRIB) official website shows the wreckage of US drone RQ-4A
A handout photo made available by Iran's state TV (IRIB) official website shows the wreckage of US drone RQ-4A
IRIB TV OFFICIAL WEBSITE

Flights rerouted

Iran said 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 $120 million apiece -- was 34 kilometres (21 miles) 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.

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Watch: Iran media plays vision of alleged missile hitting US drone.
Watch: Iran media plays vision of alleged missile hitting US drone.
  

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 Friday of "an extremely dangerous and sensitive situation," but said she was "absolutely" pleased with Trump's decision not to carry out the strike.

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 Washington "to step back from the brink of war."

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