Donald Trump has backed away from threats of further military action against Iran, claiming that Tehran was also “standing down” following a five-day tit-for-tat exchange that began with an American drone strike that killed Tehran’s top general, and concluded with Iranian ballistic missiles falling on American bases in Iraq.
“Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world,” said Mr Trump, who spoke from the White House flanked by vice president Mike Pence, secretary of state Mike Pompeo, defence secretary Mark Esper and a large coterie of top generals and admirals.
He confirmed that there were no casualties in the ballistic missile attacks, which hit Ain al-Asad base in the western province of Anbar, and Erbil city, the capital of the Iraqi Kurdistan region.
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Rather than responding militarily, Mr Trump said on Wednesday the US would “immediately impose additional powerful sanctions” on Tehran, which would remain in force “until Iran changes its behaviour”.
He did not specify what further sanctions could be added to those his administration has already imposed, which have largely cut Iran off from international trade and devastated its economy. Nor did he specify any specific conditions which could bring about relief from those sanctions other than his oft-repeated demand that Tehran “give up its nuclear ambitions”.
After opening his remarks by boasting that “Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon” while he is president, Mr Trump declared that Americans “should be extremely grateful and happy” that none of their countrymen were harmed in last night’s attack, which many observers judged to be a measured response by Tehran to the drone strike he ordered against Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps general Qassem Soleimani last week.
The president attributed the lack of casualties among both American forces and their Iraqi hosts to “precautions taken, the dispersal of forces and an early warning system that worked very well”.
But Iran-backed militias in Iraq have threatened their own retaliation to the US’s assassination of top commanders in Baghdad, sparking fears that an apparent detente between Washington and Tehran could be destroyed by further violence.
Qais al-Khazali, a hardline commander in the Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), warned that “now is the time for the first Iraqi response” adding the impeding attack would equal the Iranian response.
Friday’s airstrike against Soleimani in Baghdad also killed PMF chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
Speaking to The Independent, PMF commanders expressed frustration at the lack of bloodshed, saying they felt that the US had not been properly punished.
“This is the beginning of revenge,” said Jawad al-Talibawi, a PMF commander and spokesperson, adding that if Wednesday’s strikes were “revenge … it is not on the level of ambition”.
He refused to comment on the exact mode of the attack but added in a message to Washington: “When you prepare the dismembered parts of your soldiers, you will know what the Iraqi response was and how severe.”
The Iraqi authorities, struggling with a tricky balancing act as allies of both the US and Iran, hit back at the Iranians for Wednesday’s missile barrage and Washington for escalating tensions, saying they did not want to become an “arena for settling scores”.
Iraqi prime minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi urged all sides to “practice self-restraint” and resect Iraqi sovereignty.
On Wednesday night, two Katyusha rockets were fired into Baghdad’s green zone. The Iraqi military said no one was hurt.
Following Mr Trump’s address, Democrats said they were planning a resolution designed to limit his power to engage in military action, and urged the administration to “advance an immediate, effective de-escalatory strategy that prevents further violence”. The president had endangered American and other lives with his fatal air strike on Soleimani, House speaker Nancy Pelosi said. Members of Congress are expected to vote on the measure on Thursday.
During his press conference, Mr Trump at times appeared listless and slurred or mispronounced a number of words.
Mr Trump also claimed that Iran’s hostilities in the region “substantially increased after the foolish Iran nuclear deal was signed in 2013”, and that Tehran had been “given $150bn [£115bn], not to mention $1.8bn in cash”.
Both claims are patently false. The agreement, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was signed in 2015 by Iran, the EU and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. The signing of the deal saw a calming of tensions between Washington and Tehran, until Mr Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from the agreement in May 2018.
And although Mr Trump suggested that Tehran should have said “thank you” for being “given” $150bn and another $1.8bn in cash, the US did not give Iran money after signing the agreement – instead the US and EU released $150bn in assets that had been frozen under sanctions.
But the $1.8bn in transfers the US made to Iran around the same time had nothing to do with the JCPOA. It was in fact a settlement of a long-running dispute dispute involving funds which Iran’s previous government had paid for military equipment – including US-made F-14 fighter jets – which had never been delivered.
After calling on the rest of the JCPOA signatories to abandon the deal, Mr Trump said he would ask members of Nato to “become much more involved in the Middle East process” even though a number of Nato members including Germany, Spain, Canada and the UK have long been involved in efforts to maintain order in Iraq and defeat Isis.
In his closing remarks, Mr Trump suggested that Iran should “work together on the destruction of Isis”, which he’d just claimed to have completely destroyed, adding that the US “is ready to embrace peace with all who seek it”.
The president’s claim that he was planning more sanctions was met with scepticism by experts. Lawrence Ward, a partner at the law firm Dorsey & Whitney who focuses on international trade compliance and national security law, said in a note to reporters that it was “unclear what new economic sanctions the United States will impose against Iran following president Trump’s announcement this morning”.