U.S., Iran step back from crisis escalation
WASHINGTON >> The U.S. and Iran stepped back from the brink of possible war Wednesday, as President Donald Trump indicated he would not respond militarily after no one was harmed in Iran’s missile strike on two Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops.
Speaking from the White House, Trump seemed intent on deescalating the crisis, which reached a new height after he authorized the targeted killing last week of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force. Iran retaliated overnight with its most direct assault on America since the 1979 seizing of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, firing more than a dozen missiles from its territory at the installations in Iraq.
Trump credited an early warning system “that worked very well” for the fact that no Americans or Iraqis were killed. He added that Americans should be “extremely grateful and happy” with the outcome.
Trump, facing one of the greatest tests of his presidency, said Wednesday that Iran appeared to be “standing down” and said the U.S. response would be to put in place new economic sanctions “until Iran changes its behavior.”
The strikes had pushed Tehran and Wash
ington perilously close to all-out conflict and put the world’s attention on Trump as he weighed whether to respond with more military force. The Republican president delivered his remarks surrounded by his national security advisers in the foyer of the White House. It came after a latenight tweet in which he insisted “All is well!” after the strikes.
Iran, for days, had promised to respond forcefully to Soleimani’s killing, but its limited strike on two bases — one in the northern Iraqi city in Irbil and the other at Ain al-Asad in western Iraq — appeared to signal that it was also uninterested in a wider clash with the U.S. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted that the country had “concluded proportionate measures in self-defense.”
Trump, who is facing reelection in November, campaigned for president on a promise to keep the United States from engaging in “endless war.”
On Wednesday he said the United States is “ready to embrace peace with all who seek it.” That marked a change in tone from his Tuesday warning, “If Iran does anything that they shouldn’t be doing, they’re going to be suffering the consequences, and very strongly.”
Trump opened his remarks by reiterating his promise that “Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon,” even as that country announced in the wake of Soleimani’s killing that it would no longer comply with any of the 2015 nuclear agreement’s limits on enrichment that had been put in place to prevent it from building a nuclear device.
He seized on the moment of calm to call for new negotiations to replace the deal from which he withdrew the U.S., objecting that it didn’t limit Iran’s ballistic missile programs or constrain its regional proxy campaigns like those led by Soleimani.
The president spoke directly to Iran, saying, “We want you to have a future and a great future.”
Trump also announced he would ask NATO to become “much more involved in the Middle East process.” While he has frequently criticized NATO as obsolete and has encouraged participants to increase their military spending, Trump has sought to have the military alliance refocus its efforts on modern threats.
Like U.S. troops in the region, NATO forces have temporarily halted their training of Iraqi forces and their counter-Islamic State efforts, and re-positioned some forces due to the current instability.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, speaking on Wednesday, said the overnight strike was not necessarily the totality of Iran’s response.
“Last night they received a slap,” Khamenei said. “These military actions are not sufficient (for revenge). What is important is that the corrupt presence of America in this region comes to an end.”
Soleimani’s death last week in an American drone strike in Baghdad prompted angry calls for vengeance and drew massive crowds of Iranians to the streets to mourn him. Khamenei himself wept at the funeral in a sign of his bond with the commander.
The Iranians fired a total of 15 missiles in the latest strikes, two U.S. officials said. Ten hit the Ain al-Asad air base in Iraq’s western Anbar province and one targeted a base in Irbil in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region. Four failed, said the officials, who were not authorized to speak publicly about a military operation.
According to a U.S. official, early warning systems detected the missile launches and alarms sounded, giving personnel at the bases time to get to shelter. Officials also said that the U.S. was aware of preparations for the attack. It’s unclear if any intelligence identified specific targets or was more general.
Two Iraqi security officials said a missile appeared to have struck a plane at Ain al-Asad, igniting a fire.