Faced with the possibility of a full-scale war with Iran, President Trump chose Wednesday to deescalate, wrapping a conciliatory message in bellicose rhetoric as he denounced the country’s leaders but ordered no new military action in response to Tehran’s missile attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq.
Trump said he would impose additional economic sanctions on Iran — a move of limited impact given the multiple, strict sanctions already in place — but otherwise did not retaliate for the missile strikes.
“Our great American forces are prepared for anything,” Trump said in a speech from the White House. “Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world.”
Even as he bragged about U.S. military superiority and, specifically, about “our missiles” being “big, powerful, accurate, lethal and fast,” Trump sounded a note of restraint.
“The fact that we have this great military and equipment, however, does not mean we have to use it,” he said. “We do not want to use it.”
Trump noted that no Americans or Iraqis were killed by the at least 15 ballistic missiles fired from Iran, “because of the precautions taken, the dispersal of forces, and an early warning system that worked very well.”
U.S. commanders in Iraq appeared to have considerable advance warning of the attack, providing time for military personnel to take cover.
In addition to the United States’ intelligence capabilities, Iraq’s prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, said Wednesday that Iran warned Baghdad roughly 80 minutes before the attack began. The Iranians said that “the strike would be limited to places where the U.S. Army is present in Iraq without specifying [the strikes’] targets,” he said.
Some military experts said Iran appeared to have calibrated the strike to minimize casualties, aiming at airplane hangars and other equipment at the two bases that were targeted.
Iran described the attack as “harsh retaliation” for the U.S. drone strike that killed Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, one of the country’s most powerful officials.
Only days ago, Trump had threatened that he would order an attack if Iran hit U.S. bases or interests. But in Wednesday’s speech, he called for the U.S. and other world powers to negotiate a new deal with Iran to control that country’s nuclear program and urging joint U.S.-Iranian efforts against Islamic State militants.
In the hours immediately after the attack, both Tehran and Washington signaled that they were prepared to back away from the brink without further escalation. Trump’s speech solidified that impression, at least for now.
Analysts cautioned, however, that Iran would be likely to find other, more covert ways to retaliate in the months, and perhaps years, to come, including possible terrorist attacks or cyberattacks on U.S. institutions.
Iranian-backed militias in Iraq could also act to keep the fight alive. Wednesday night in Baghdad, explosions rocked the city’s central district in what officials said was a rocket attack near the U.S. Embassy compound.
An Iran-backed Iraqi paramilitary faction, Asaib Ahl Haq, claimed responsibility on Twitter for the rocket attack, which it said was intended to avenge the death of Abu Mahdi Muhandis, a prominent militia leader who was killed last week alongside Suleimani.
While portraying Iran’s retaliatory strikes as something less than a major provocation, Trump, who was flanked by the vice president and his national security team as he spoke from a teleprompter, defended the strike against Suleimani, whom he labeled a “terrorist.” He made no mention, however, of the “imminent” threat from Suleimani that administration officials initially cited to justify his killing.
Like Trump, Iran also sought to present an image at home of resolute determination in the fight even as the country’s leaders sent signals internationally of a desire to deescalate.
Iran’s semiofficial Fars News Agency reported that “some 80 U.S. Army personnel have been killed and nearly 200 more wounded in the missile attacks.” The Iranians presented no evidence to back up that claim.
An official statement from the Iranian army promised that, if the U.S. ratcheted up military action against Iran, “the slap which was hit on its face will turn into a crushing steel fist.”
The country’s leadership signaled that the missile strike did not mark an end to its fight with the U.S. or its ultimate goal of expelling American forces from the Middle East.
Iran’s “final answer” to Suleimani’s killing “will be to kick all US forces out of the region,” President Hasan Rouhani tweeted.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader, echoed those sentiments in a speech Wednesday while portraying the current detente as a matter of the U.S. backing off.
“They know that if they enter a conflict and a hard military confrontation with us, they will be trapped,” Khamenei said. “Yes, they would deal a blow to us. But they would possibly be dealt manifold blows. They’ve understood this.”
As he often does, Trump used his speech to score domestic political points. He aimed nearly as much scorn at past American presidents as at the Iranians.
“For far too long — all the way back to 1979, to be exact — nations have tolerated Iran’s destructive and destabilizing behavior in the Middle East and beyond. Those days are over,” Trump said.
“Iran has been the leading sponsor of terrorism, and their pursuit of nuclear weapons threatens the civilized world. We will never let that happen.”
The missiles Iran fired at U.S. targets Tuesday night were “paid for with the funds made available by the last administration,” he asserted — a reference to his long-standing claim that the Obama administration acted improperly when it returned billions of dollars in frozen Iranian funds as part of the 2015 international agreement to limit Tehran’s nuclear program.
Trump urged world powers to abandon once and for all the “foolish” 2015 deal, which he incorrectly said was signed in 2013. He called on the major European powers and Russia and China, which helped negotiate the agreement, to join with the U.S. and forge a “deal with Iran that makes the world a safer and more peaceful place.”
Surprisingly, Trump said he would ask the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which he repeatedly has criticized and undermined, to play a more central role in talks with Iran. He and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg spoke by phone later Wednesday, and the president “asked NATO to become more involved” in the Middle East, according to a readout from NATO headquarters.
Iran could “have a great future” of prosperity and harmony with the world, Trump said, adding that the U.S. is ready to “embrace peace with all who seek it.”
With the president’s nine minutes of remarks from the White House foyer Wednesday morning, the immediate crisis may now ease, although Iran’s retaliation may not be over, just on hold and potentially more covert in the months and even years ahead.
“I am skeptical that Iran is done with its retaliation,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said Wednesday, an assessment shared by many Iran analysts.
“I am hopeful that the Iranians will recognize that deescalation is the wisest course for all parties. But given Iran’s long — decades-long — history of aggressive action towards the United States, both overt and covert, I am concerned that we not let our guard down,” he said.
The long-term impact of the quick military deescalation on foreign policy is less clear given the president’s repeated vows to punish Iran. Trump has urged Iran’s leaders to negotiate with him in the past, and while he offered that olive branch again Wednesday, he did not make any specific offers to loosen the economic strictures that have choked Iran’s economy — a key Iranian demand.
The tit-for-tat attacks between the U.S. and Iran already have destabilized the volatile region.
After the drone strike on Suleimani, Iran announced it would no longer abide by restrictions on uranium enrichment imposed by the 2015 nuclear deal.
The future of the U.S. military presence in Iraq is now an open question, with the Iraqi parliament having voted for a nonbinding measure that demanded a U.S. withdrawal. An end to the U.S. troop presence, something Trump has sought, could create a vacuum filled by Islamic State or Iran-backed Shiite militias at a time when anti-American sentiment is inflamed.
Further, the prospect of face-to-face talks between the U.S. and Iran about curtailing Tehran’s nuclear capabilities appears dim. Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018 and imposed severe sanctions on Iran in an effort, so far unsuccessful, to force it back to the negotiating table.
Politically, however, Trump appears to have considerable room to maneuver. Republicans, who held a news conference at the Capitol on Wednesday before his speech, praised his order to kill Suleimani, and party leaders backed his decision against a military response to the missile strike.
“The president made it very clear: If you kill an American, we will respond directly, and we did,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) said. “We are safer for it.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) praised Trump’s “patience and prudence” in waiting several hours before reacting to Iran’s attack.
“As a superpower, we have the capacity to exercise restraint and to respond at a time and place of our choosing, if need be,” he said. “I believe the president wants to avoid conflict or needless loss of life, but he’s rightly prepared to protect American lives and interests.”
Democrats continued to criticize Trump and pressed ahead with plans to vote on a resolution under the 1973 War Powers Act that would restrict the president’s ability to engage in a wider conflict with Iran.
The first indications that both sides might be aiming to deescalate the conflict came within hours of the missile strike.
Trump met Tuesday night at the White House with his national security team, including Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Although a presidential address Tuesday evening was discussed privately, Trump’s only message to the nation came in a late-night tweet, which was notably less bellicose — upbeat even — than his previous threats and warnings to Iran.
“All is well!” Trump tweeted. “Missiles launched from Iran at two military bases located in Iraq. Assessment of casualties & damages taking place now. So far, so good! We have the most powerful and well equipped military anywhere in the world, by far!”
Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, also signaled that his country’s leadership was ready to stand down after the missile strikes.
“Iran took & concluded proportionate measures in self-defense under Article 51 of UN Charter targeting base from which cowardly armed attack against our citizens & senior officials were launched,” Zarif tweeted. “We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression.”
Times staff writers Nabih Bulos in Baghdad and Sarah Parvini in Los Angeles contributed to this report.