U.S., Iran Back Away From Conflict—For Now
The crisis appears to be cooling, at least for now, as U.S. lawmakers — and presumably the president — return their focus to the looming impeachment trial in the Senate.
Both the United States and Iran appear to be backing away from open conflict, less than 24 hours after Iran fired more than a dozen ballistic missiles at two Iraqi bases housing U.S. soldiers, a strike in retaliation for the killing of Iran’s Gen. Qasem Soleimani.
“Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world,” President Donald Trump said during a press conference on Wednesday morning.
“The fact that we have this great military and equipment...does not mean we have to use it. We do not want to use it,” Trump said. “American strength, both military and economic, is the best deterrent.”
Trump also announced new sanctions on Iran and called for NATO to be “more involved” in “the Middle East process,” but provided no specifics.
Senior Pentagon leaders also provided a handful of new details about the attack. Iran fired 16 missiles from three separate sites in Iran, according to Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley and Defense Secretary Mark Esper. Eleven missiles hit Al-Assad Air Base in western Iraq and one hit Irbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, Esper told reporters, damaging tents, taxiways, a parking lot, and a helicopter.
Some lawmakers and analysts have suggested that the Iranian attack, while claimed by the Iranian state, may have been intentionally designed to avoid crossing Trump’s “red line” — U.S. casualties. "I believe this was intentional by the Iranians that they didn't kill Americans so they can bring this to an end,” Rep. Mike Rogers, Ala., the top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, told CNN.
But Milley on Wednesday afternoon shot down that theory, telling reporters that they believed the Iranians fired intending to kill U.S. service-members.
“The points of impact were close enough to personnel and equipment … [that] I believe, based on what I saw and what I know is they were intended to cause structural damage, destroy vehicles and equipment and aircraft, and to kill personnel,” Milley said.
Trump on Wednesday underlined the apparent limit of U.S. lives lost: “By removing Soleimani we have sent a powerful message to terrorists: If you value your own life you will not threaten the lives of our people,” he said.
Fears of open conflict between the United States and Iran have ballooned since Jan. 2, when a U.S. drone killed Soleimani and a key Iran-aligned militia leader in Iraq. Although Soleimani is blamed by U.S. officials for orchestrating the death of hundreds of Americans in Iraq, he is a beloved figure in Iran. Past administrations had concluded that the consequences of targeting him outweighed the benefit of taking him off of the battlefield.
On Wednesday afternoon, senior Trump administration officials briefed House and Senate lawmakers on the strikes. Lawmakers emerged divided along partisan lines as to whether the original strike on Soleimani was justified. (“No,” 2020 candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., flatly, when asked if she was convinced that there had been an imminent threat leading to the strike, as Trump claimed.) House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said her chamber would move ahead with a vote on a War Powers Resolution restricting the president from conflict with Iran.
Key allies of the president — including some GOP lawmakers who have voted in the past to block the president from hostilities with Iran — emerged from the brief saying that they were confident the situation had cooled, and that the president had taken the right action in response to solid intelligence of an imminent threat.
“I think, based on the president’s speech today…I would say I’m optimistic that we can look at deescalating environment,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C.
Key Iran-aligned militia figures in Iraq also signaled their intent to de-escalate, even as Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said that more needed to be done to avenge Soleimani’s death. Iraq's Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia, whose rocket attack in December killed a U.S. contractor and precipitated the crisis, told its followers Wednesday to be “patient” and that "passions must be avoided to achieve the desired results.” Moqtada al-Sadr, a powerful nationalist Shiite cleric — who opposes all foreign influence in Iraq — said in a statement following Trump’s remarks that the crisis in Iraq was over.
“I call on the Iraqi factions to be deliberate, patient, and not to start military actions, and to shut down the extremist voices of some rogue elements until all political, parliamentary and international methods have been exhausted,” Sadr said.
There were no casualties in the Tuesday-night attack, and there were signs almost immediately that both sides were looking for a way to de-escalate the razor-taut tensions in the region. Iran’s foreign minister on Tuesday night described the missiles as “proportionate measures” that Iran “took and concluded...in self-defense,” while Trump tweeted “all is well!” Key Trump allies urged caution: “In my view, retaliation for the sake of retaliation is not necessary at this time,” tweeted Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Trump — and Pentagon officials — downplayed the danger of the missile attack on the two bases.
"U.S. early-warning systems detected the incoming ballistic missiles well in advance, providing U.S. and coalition forces adequate time to take appropriate force protection measures," a U.S. defense official told reporters at the Pentagon on Wednesday. Trump confirmed in his speech that no Americans or Iraqis were killed in the attack, because of the precautions taken, the dispersal of forces and an early-warning system that worked very well,” he said.
Critics have argued that Trump had no choice but to try to de-escalate the situation to avoid an unpopular war with Iran — and that he may not be able to in the end. Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said, “I leave more troubled than I went in” and that “coming out of that so-called briefing, absolutely” the House should move ahead with a War Powers Resolution vote.
“The country needs to be protected,” Connolly said.
“Standard Trump play: create an unnecessary crisis, claim credit for it not becoming an even worse crisis, sit back and watch pundits clap like seals,” tweeted Matt Duss, a foreign-policy advisor to 2020 candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
Rep. Jimmy Gomez, D-Calif., hammered Trump for using his remarks to blame the Obama administration for Iran’s aggressive conduct.
“This was supposed to be an address to the nation. Instead, it was another embarrassing reminder of @realDonaldTrump’s absurd fixation on vilifying @BarackObama,” Gomez said in a tweet. “Making matters worse, it’s obvious this man cares more about appearing tough than keeping the American people safe.”
At least two Republican lawmakers emerged from Wednesday’s briefing saying that they would support the War Powers Resolution spearheaded by Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., the libertarian members Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Mike Lee, R-Utah. (The measure would still need two more Republican votes to pass the Senate.) Lee, calling it “the worst briefing I’ve had on a military issue in my nine years” in the Senate, said he had decided to support Kaine’s resolution as a result.
Still, the crisis appears to be cooling, at least for now, as lawmakers — and presumably the president — return their focus to the looming impeachment trial in the Senate.
Milley and Esper — as well as outside analysts — caution that even if direct conflict between the U.S. and Iran appears less likely than it did just 24 hours ago, it could still play out in proxy warfare across the Middle East.
“We should have some expectation that Shia militia groups, either directed by or non-directed by Iran, will continue in some way, shape or form to try and undermine our presence there, either politically or take some type of kinetic actions against us,” Esper said. “Our challenge will be to again sort through that, understand who’s doing it, who’s motivating it, react forcefully, act forcefully, to make sure we keep that level of deterrence raised high.
“That…will remain our challenge going forward, I believe.”
Brett McGurk, President Trump’s former top official on ISIS at the State Department, said in a tweet that one of Khamenei’s key goals remains pushing the United States out of Iraq so that Iran can consolidate power there.
“It’s not over. Iran will now return to cutouts and proxies,” said McGurk, who resigned in protest over Trump’s Syria withdrawal last year.
Milley, asked whether he was optimistic about whether the United States would be able to return to diplomacy with Iran, quipped: "I am neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but realistic."
Marcus Weisgerber contributed to this report.