Trump, Tehran step back from war footing after Iran’s attack on military bases in Iraq

Trump, Tehran step back from war footing after Iran’s attack on military bases in Iraq

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump sought to lower tensions with Iran Wednesday, a day after Tehran fired more than a dozen rockets at Iraqi bases hosting U.S. troops, a move that raised fears the two countries were hurtling toward war.

Trump used a nine-minute televised address to announce new sanctions on Iran and tout the might of U.S. armed services. But just as remarkable was what his address did not include: a direct threat to respond militarily to Iran’s action, which was a retaliation for a U.S. drone strike that killed top Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani.

A U.S. official told USA TODAY that there were indications that Iran’s attack on the bases was intended to send a message rather than to kill U.S. soldiers. Iran appears to have fired its missiles into areas of the bases that were unpopulated and where significant damage would be unlikely, said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly.

Still, Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pushed back on the notion that Iran deliberately sought to minimize damage. Milley told reporters he believed the attacks were designed ‘to kill personnel,’ according to The Associated Press. 

Flanked by top military officials and members of his Cabinet, including Defense Secretary Mark Esper, the president said there were no casualties from the attack and told Iran he saw a possibility for negotiation.

“We want you to have a future and a great future – one that you deserve, one of prosperity at home, and harmony with the nations of the world,” he said. “The United States is ready to embrace peace with all who seek it.”

Trump’s speech: President warns Iran but says US ‘ready to embrace peace with all who seek it’

Iran crisis: What you need to know about rising U.S.-Iran tensions after Soleimani’s death

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif framed the attack as a measure of “self defense” in a tweet after the missiles landed.

“We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression,” Zarif wrote.

The potential for mass casualties from Iran’s attack was real: There are about 1,500 U.S., coalition and Iraqi troops at al Assad air base in Western Iraq, one of the sites Iran targeted. Precision drone and missile strikes by Iranian-backed forces in September that severely damaged oil production facilities in Saudi Arabia supported the belief that Iran has the capability to strike targets with lethal force.

But given the limited damage, the U.S. official said the attack appeared designed mainly for a domestic audience to show Iranians that the regime was responding to the killing of Soleimani. Iran has also repeatedly called for the U.S. to leave Iraq.

The Iranians know how to hit a target when they want to destroy it, said a second U.S. official with knowledge of Iranian capabilities who was not authorized to speak publicly. Such an attack would have caused “grave damage,” the official said. It is possible that more moderate elements in the Iranian government are pushing for restraint, the official said.

A senior staff member on Capitol Hill said the Iranians appeared to deliberately choose their targets as a warning, not to inflict major damage.

The dizzying series of events this week marked a critical moment in Trump’s presidency, testing a foreign policy that has rested on unwinding President Barack Obama’s effort to reach out to Iran through a multination nuclear agreement that offered sanctions relief in exchange for Tehran curbing its nuclear program. Trump has long argued that agreement was too lenient on Iran.

To underscore the point, Trump vowed Iran would “never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon” during his presidency even before he said “good morning” in his remarks Wednesday.

Trump, who has pledged to keep the U.S. out of foreign entanglements but also has repeatedly threatened military action against Iran, said he would encourage NATO allies to “become much more involved in the Middle East process.”

Tensions between the U.S. and Iran, already on the rise for the months, escalated dramatically after the U.S. killed Soleimani in a drone strike near the Baghdad International Airport last week. Soleimani was the leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force and one of the country’s most powerful leaders.

Administration officials said Trump ordered the drone strike because Soleimani was plotting attacks on Americans in the Middle East and that he presented an imminent threat, though they have not detailed the extent of that planning.

Iran struck back late Tuesday – just before dawn in Iraq – firing more than a dozen missiles at U.S. troops and coalition forces in Erbil and at the al Assad base.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers expressed relief that Trump did not order further military action.

“It’s still a volatile situation, but I’m glad it hasn’t escalated and there’s still a chance at a resolution,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., who had introduced legislation to limit military action.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a close ally of the president, said Iran should heed Trump’s words.

“To the Iranian people and the regime: He’s giving you a chance to end this peacefully,” Graham said. “He’s given you a chance for peace and prosperity. You should take it.”

President Donald Trump delivers a statement on the U.S. response to Iranian missile strikes in the Grand Foyer of the White House in Washington on Jan. 8, 2020. (Photo: MICHAEL REYNOLDS, EPA-EFE)

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