WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump backed away from further military action against Iran and called for renewed diplomacy Wednesday as the bristling confrontation of the past six days eased in the aftermath of an Iranian missile strike that seemed intended to save face rather than inflict casualties.
“Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world,” Trump said in a televised statement from the Grand Foyer of the White House, flanked by his vice president, cabinet secretaries and senior military officers in their uniforms. “The United States,” he added, “is ready to embrace peace with all who seek it.”
The president sounded as eager as the Iranians to find a way out of a conflict that threatened to spiral out of control into a new full-fledged war in the Middle East. While he excoriated Iran’s “campaign of terror, murder, mayhem” and defended his decision to order a drone strike killing the country’s top security commander, he dropped for now his bombastic threats of escalating force, vowing instead to increase economic sanctions while calling for new negotiations.
The president’s statement came hours after Iran’s government indicated that it had “concluded proportionate measures” avenging the killing of the commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, with the launch of ballistic missiles at two military bases in Iraq that house U.S. troops. The missiles did not result in any American or Iraqi deaths, an outcome interpreted by some analysts as a deliberate attempt by Iran to claim it had responded, but without provoking Trump.
But analysts cautioned that even as the two sides edged away from a military clash in the short term, the conflict could very well play out in other ways in the weeks and months to come. Iran has many proxy groups in the Middle East that could stir up trouble for U.S. troops or U.S. allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia, and experts remained wary of a possible Iranian cyberstrike on domestic facilities.
President Hassan Rouhani of Iran made clear that his country still saw its mission over the long run as driving the United States out of the Middle East after the killing of Soleimani. “Our final answer to his assassination will be to kick all US forces out of the region,” Rouhani wrote on Twitter.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader, hailed Iran’s missile strike as a “slap in the face” of the United States and suggested Wednesday that it would not be the end of the clash. “What matters is that the presence of America, which is a source of corruption in this region, should come to an end,” he said in a televised speech to a hall filled with imams and others, who chanted, “Death to America!” and “Death to Israel!”
And the top U.S. military officer disagreed with those who saw the missile strike as halfhearted and unintended to kill. “The points of impact were close enough to personnel and equipment, I believe — based on what I saw, and what I know — that they were intended to cause structural damage, destroy vehicles and equipment and aircraft, and kill personnel,” Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters.
The operation against Soleimani may also prove to have consequences beyond the direct relationship with Iran. Outraged that the general was killed after arriving at Baghdad International Airport, Iraq’s parliament voted to expel the 5,000 U.S. troops from the country. Such a decision would still have to be enacted by the caretaker government, but the Pentagon has begun preparing for the possibility of losing its bases in the country nearly 17 years after the invasion ordered by President George W. Bush.
Lawmakers in both parties welcomed Trump’s decision to pull back from the brink, but Democrats and even some Republicans expressed discontent with closed-door briefings provided on Wednesday about the supposedly “imminent” threat of attack cited in justifying the drone strike on Soleimani.
Several lawmakers said the presentations were unpersuasive. Two Republican senators, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah, said afterward that the administration officials offered mainly generalities rather than concrete new information about any coming attack.
“Drive-by notification or after-the-fact lame briefings like the one we just received aren’t adequate,” Lee told reporters.
He also complained that one of the officials warned senators against publicly debating the administration’s actions because it would embolden the enemy, calling that “insulting and demeaning” to the Senate and the Constitution. “It’s un-American, it’s unconstitutional and it’s wrong,” Lee said.
Even though the threat of further conflict with Iran appeared to recede for now, Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that the House would vote Thursday on a measure curtailing Trump’s war-making power by requiring him to halt military action against Iran within 30 days unless Congress votes to approve it.
Such a measure has little chance of becoming law given Republican control of the Senate and Trump’s veto pen, although Lee said he had been persuaded to vote for a similar resolution being offered by Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., because of the administration briefer’s effort to silence him.
Trump’s 10-minute televised statement Wednesday morning was his most extended effort to explain last week’s drone strike on Soleimani. He surrounded himself with his national security team, including Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Milley and Robert C. O’Brien, the national security adviser. They stood stoically around the president without commenting.
The administration’s messages have been conflicting and confusing. In recent days, the president was forced to walk back threats to target Iranian cultural sites after the defense secretary made clear that doing so would be a war crime. The American headquarters in Baghdad had written a letter indicating it was withdrawing from Iraq, only to have the Defense Department say it was a draft document with no authority.
In his statement Wednesday, Trump sought to pin the current crisis on a predecessor, blaming former President Barack Obama for striking a “foolish” nuclear agreement with Iran in 2015 that unfroze billions of dollars of money for Tehran that could be used to finance ballistic missiles and terrorist activity. “The missiles fired last night at us and our allies were paid for with the funds made available by the last administration,” Trump said.
There was no way to know if that was literally true, because money is fungible, but some of the president’s claims about the nuclear agreement were false, exaggerated or unsubstantiated claims. He asserted, among other things, that Iran’s hostile acts against the United States and its allies increased after the deal, rather than after the Trump administration withdrew from it in 2018, as statistics indicate.
Either way, he urged Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China to recognize that it was effectively dead and called on those countries to join him in negotiating a replacement for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the agreement is officially known, that would go further to constrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
“They must now break away from the remnants of the Iran deal, or JCPOA, and we must all work together toward making a deal with Iran that makes the world a safer and more peaceful place,” Trump said.
The call on Europeans may fall on deaf ears. Only hours before Trump spoke, European leaders repeated their commitment to the pact and urged Iran to return to compliance despite U.S. sanctions. Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, and Josep Borrell Fontelles, the EU foreign policy chief, both said the deal should be preserved.
Similarly, Trump in his statement called on NATO, an alliance he has regularly scorned, to take on a larger role in the Middle East, and he spoke by telephone with Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary-general, about the idea.
But NATO allies have little interest in following Trump’s lead, and in recent days they have been withdrawing troops from Iraq to avoid becoming entangled in the conflict between the United States and Iran.
The president defended the drone strike, calling Soleimani “the world’s top terrorist” responsible “for some of the absolutely worst atrocities” of recent years.
“In recent days, he was planning new attacks on American targets, but we stopped him,” Trump said without elaborating or offering evidence. “Soleimani’s hands were drenched in both American and Iranian blood. He should have been terminated long ago.”
But Trump emphasized that he did not want a wider war despite his efforts to build up American combat capacity. “The fact that we have this great military and equipment, however, does not mean we have to use it,” the president said. “We do not want to use it.”
He said instead that he would ratchet up sanctions on Iran, although administration officials said later that they had no specific plan to do so. The administration has already imposed so much economic pressure on Tehran that it was unclear if additional measures would make a meaningful difference.
Still, in Washington, Republicans and Democrats alike breathed sighs of relief that the two nations seemed to be pulling back from violent confrontation, at least for now.
“I applaud the president for de-escalating the situation and putting us back on the path of diplomacy,” said Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “We do not seek conflict, but the United States will not be deterred from protecting American lives and our vital national security interests.”
But Democrats faulted Trump for stoking that eyeball-to-eyeball faceoff in the first place and said that the United States would still reap negative consequences. “I am glad that the road to war may be narrowing,” said Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., “but the damage done to U.S. national security interests is enormous and potentially irreparable.”
Soleimani, commander of the elite Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard, helped direct wars in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen and was held responsible for attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq that killed at least 600 during the height of the Iraq war. More recently, U.S. officials blamed him for a Dec. 27 rocket attack on a base in Iraq that killed an American civilian contractor.
The Iranian missile strikes, which began early Wednesday morning local time — late Tuesday in Washington — targeted Ain al-Asad Air Base, long a hub for U.S. military operations in Iraq, and another base in Irbil in northern Iraq, which has been a home for Special Operations forces in the fight against the Islamic State.
The Pentagon said 16 short-range ballistic missiles were fired from three locations in Iran and that 11 of them struck Ain al-Asad and one hit Irbil, with the rest missing the bases. Milley attributed the lack of casualties not to lack of intent but to the military’s own early-warning systems and bunkers.
Esper said the missiles damaged tents, taxiways, a parking lot, a helicopter and other targets. “Nothing,” he said, “that I would describe as major.”