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Trump Pulls Back From Brink Of War With Iran, But Is Threat Over?


U.S. President Donald Trump delivers a statement about Iran flanked by U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper (far left), Vice President Mike Pence (far right) and military leaders in the Grand Foyer at the White House in Washington on January 8.

WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Donald Trump has signaled a de-escalation in his conflict with Tehran that has the world on edge about an impending war by hinting he would not use military force to retaliate against Iran for its nonfatal missile attack against bases hosting American troops in Iraq.

Trump mixed words of disgust for Iran's policies of sponsoring terrorism with those of peace and cooperation during a highly anticipated address to the nation from the White House on January 8 as the world wondered if a new Middle East war was about to begin.

Surrounded by Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, and top military brass, Trump said the United States would use its economic might to hit back at Tehran for firing ballistic missiles at two bases the previous evening.

"As we continue to evaluate options in response to Iranian aggression, the United States will immediately impose additional punishing economic sanctions on the Iranian regime," Trump said during a 10-minute speech from the Grand Foyer.

While Trump made it clear to Tehran that the United States has the ability to destroy targets in Iran with its "big, powerful, accurate, lethal, and fast" missiles to achieve its aims, he said a military solution was not the priority.

"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.

'Leaving The Door Open'

The president said he wanted to make a new deal with Iran on its nuclear program -- one of the issues at the heart of the conflict between Washington and Iran -- that would allow the Middle East country to thrive and prosper," adding that "Iran can be a great country."

Trump's speech "left the door open" to a diplomatic solution with Iran, Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, told RFE/RL.

Tehran, though, helped paved the way for Trump to de-escalate by retaliating for the U.S. assassination of its most powerful military commander without taking any American lives, Vatanka said.

In the early hours of January 8, Iran launched about a dozen ballistic missiles at the Ain al-Asad Air Base and Harir Air Base in Iraq that host U.S. and allied soldiers.

The attack was Iran's response to the January 3 assassination of Major General Qasem Soleimani, the powerful head of Iran's elite Quds Force in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

Trump said the missiles caused "minimal damage" to the bases and that no one died. Iran could have killed Americans if it wanted to, said Vatanka.

Perhaps referring to the lack of damage and death, Trump said that Iran "appears to be standing down."

The United States and Iran "came to the brink [of war], and they looked at what was on the other side and they didn't like it," Vatanka said.

Oil prices tumbled about 5 percent following Trump's speech amid optimism that war is off the table for the time being. The Middle East is the largest oil-producing region in the world, and war could potentially upset oil exports from there.

Deep Fissure

However, the issues that underlie the deep fissure in the U.S.-Iranian relationship have not been addressed and could flare up again, Dalia Dassa Kaye, the director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy at the Rand Corp, told RFE/RL.

"The president's speech this morning suggested that there is no policy shift. While it is certainly welcomed that there are signs that there is interest in diplomacy and de-escalation, I think we are going to have to see more than just talk about talk," she said.

The U.S. killing of Soleimani followed a rocket attack against a U.S. base in Iraq on December 27 that killed one person and injured four.

It also came days after Iran-backed militia supporters stormed the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

Trump said Soleimani was behind those two attacks and had killed thousands of U.S. troops over the years.

Key Facts About Iranian General Qasem Soleimani
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He justified the assassination of Soleimani during his speech, saying the military commander was "threatening American lives."

The killing shocked Iran and the international community and sparked fears of imminent war as Tehran would be forced to retaliate.

Democrats criticized the assassination as reckless and said Trump's Iranian policies were pushing the nation toward war.

Senate Democrats doubled down on their criticism of the assassination following a meeting with administration officials on January 8, saying they gave no proof that Soleimani was about to undertake an attack against Americans.

"This appears to be a strike of choice by this administration," Senator Chris Murphy told reporters following the meeting.

'Cataclysmic' Consequences

Murphy said the killing has led to "cataclysmic" consequences for the United States, with Iraq potentially pushing American troops out of the country and with Iran possibly leaving a landmark 2015 nuclear agreement.

Trump used his speech to blame the deterioration in relations with Iran on his predecessor, President Barack Obama, who had agreed to ease sanctions against Iran in return for greater international control over the nation's uranium enrichment program.

The agreement unfroze billions of dollars in bank accounts belonging to Iran.

"The missiles fired last night at us and our allies were paid for with the funds made available by the last administration," Trump said.

However, many analysts say Trump's decision to unilaterally withdraw the United States from the multinational nuclear deal with Iran has been the spark for the flare-up in tensions.

That deal -- backed by Russia, China, Germany, France, and Britain -- eased sanctions against Iran in exchange for limits on its uranium enrichment program.

Trump has called the agreement "terrible" and said it would lead to Iran developing bomb-grade uranium.

The president opened his speech by saying he would never allow Iran to have a nuclear weapons program.

Trump imposed crippling sanctions on Iran following withdrawal from the agreement in 2018, sending the nation's economy into free fall. Trump has widened the sanctions on several occasions since then.

Iran has retaliated to the sanctions -- which have caused shortfalls in basic goods and sparked massive street protests -- over the past year by attacking oil tankers and U.S. bases in Iraq. It has also been blamed for strikes on Saudi oil refineries.

Trump's announcement that he is imposing yet more sanctions against Iran shows there is no shift in the U.S. strategy, said Rand Corps' Kaye.

"There is still a maximum pressure campaign against the Iranians. They are facing tremendous economic vulnerabilities. So, the incentives for the Iranians to continue to show there is a cost to this [sanctions] approach is still there," she said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that President Trump said he would never allow Iran to have a nuclear program. He actually said he would never allow Iran to have a nuclear weapons program.

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    Todd Prince

    Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.

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