WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump backed away from further military confrontation with Iran on Wednesday after a barrage of missiles fired at U.S. troops killed no one and Tehran indicated that would be the end of its retaliation for the killing of a top general.
“Iran appears to be standing down which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world,” Trump said in a televised statement from the Grand Foyer of the White House, flanked by his vice president, Cabinet secretaries and senior military officers in their uniforms.
His comments came the morning after Iran fired a reported 22 ballistic missiles at two military bases in Iraq that house U.S. troops in response to last week’s drone strike that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s elite security and intelligence forces. No U.S. troops were injured or killed in the attacks, the president said.
In the hours since, some analysts expressed cautious optimism that the missile strikes might prove the end of the immediate conflict rather than the start of a larger confrontation that could spiral into a full-fledged war. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said afterward that Iran had “concluded proportionate measures” in its retribution for Soleimani’s death, and Trump’s response seemed to indicate an openness to letting it go without further reprisals since no casualties were reported.
But analysts cautioned that even if the two sides ease off a further military clash in the short term, the conflict could very well play out in other ways in the weeks and months to come. Iran has many proxy groups in the Middle East that could stir trouble in new ways for U.S. troops or U.S. allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia, and U.S. experts remained wary of a possible Iranian cyberstrike on domestic facilities.
President Hassan Rouhani of Iran made clear that his country still saw its mission over the long run as driving the United States out of the Middle East after the killing of Soleimani.
“Our final answer to his assassination will be to kick all US forces out of the region,” Rouhani wrote on Twitter.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader, likewise suggested Wednesday that an incremental operation would not be the end of the clash.
“What matters is that the presence of America, which is a source of corruption in this region, should come to an end,” he said in a speech to a hall filled with imams and others, who chanted, “Death to America!” and “Death to Israel!”
The operation against Soleimani may prove to have consequences beyond the direct relationship with Iran. Outraged that the general was killed after arriving at Baghdad International Airport, Iraq’s Parliament voted without dissent to expel the 5,000 U.S. troops from the country. Such a decision would still have to be enacted by the caretaker government, but the Pentagon has begun preparing for the possibility of losing its bases in the country nearly 17 years after the invasion ordered by President George W. Bush.
Trump’s televised statement Wednesday morning was his first formal effort to explain the situation to the country since ordering the drone strike on Soleimani on Thursday. He has fired off tweets and spoken with reporters a couple of times since then without making an official speech outlining his thinking.
The administration’s messages up until now have at times been conflicting and confusing. The president was forced to walk back threats to target Iranian cultural sites after his defense secretary made clear that would be a war crime. The U.S. headquarters in Baghdad had drafted a letter saying it was withdrawing from Iraq only to have the Defense Department say it was a draft document with no authority.
And the administration has not given a detailed public explanation of its reasoning for conducting the strike now, given that Soleimani has been responsible for killing U.S. soldiers and stirring trouble in the region for many years. Officials at times have asserted that the administration was acting to forestall an “imminent” threat and at others have stressed that it was responding to his past actions.
Congressional Democrats have complained that the administration has not been much more forthcoming in a classified war powers notice or in briefings, raising questions about the nature of the intelligence used to justify the drone strike. Gina Haspel, the CIA director, and other administration officials were scheduled to brief the entire House and Senate on Wednesday.
The White House has said the president acted under his constitutional authority to take action in self-defense as well as in keeping with the power granted by Congress in a 2002 measure that authorized Bush’s invasion. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she would hold a House vote this week on legislation meant to rein in the president’s ability to go to war with Iran, although such a measure presumably would not be accepted by the Republican-controlled Senate, much less signed into law by Trump.
But some Democrats urged Trump to pull back from further military escalation anyway. “Both sides need to find offramps to avoid conflict from spiraling further out of control,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon. “Iran claims it does not seek escalation or war. Now is our chance to let them prove it. President Trump should look at diplomatic options and remember that our greatest strength has never been our military might but our global leadership.”
Even Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, seemed to nudge Trump not to ratchet up the conflict further. “As a superpower, we have the capacity to exercise restraint and to respond at a time and place of our choosing if need be,” he said on the floor. “I believe the president wants to avoid conflict or needless loss of life, but is rightly prepared to protect American lives and interests.”
Soleimani, commander of the elite Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, was the architect of Iran’s efforts to extend its influence throughout the Middle East. He helped direct wars in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen as he sought to establish a regional bloc of Shiite power, and he was held responsible by the United States for attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq that killed at least 600 back during the height of the war.
More recently, U.S. officials pointed to Soleimani as the force behind a Dec. 27 rocket attack on a base in Iraq that killed an American civilian contractor. They said he had traveled the region in recent days as part of preparations for a future attack that could have killed hundreds of Americans; however, they provided scant details and no evidence.
Trump has seen Iran as the main enemy of the United States since taking office, withdrawing from the nuclear agreement brokered by President Barack Obama and reimposing sanctions in hopes of crippling its economy.
He has signaled in the past that he would be willing to negotiate without preconditions, but diplomacy now appears even unlikelier than before as Tehran vows to abandon constraints in the Obama agreement and proceed with developing its nuclear capabilities.
The Iranian missile strikes, which began early Wednesday local time or late Tuesday in Washington, targeted Al Asad Air Base, long a hub for U.S. military operations in Iraq, and another base in Irbil in northern Iraq, which has been a home for Special Operations forces in the fight against the Islamic State both in Iraq and in Syria.
In the hours afterward, Trump seemed to indicate that the Iranian missiles did no meaningful damage.
“All is well!” he wrote on Twitter. “Missiles launched from Iran at two military bases located in Iraq. Assessment of casualties & damages taking place now. So far, so good!”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.