Trump takes off-ramp in Iran crisis

President Trump softened his tone toward Iran on Wednesday, claiming Tehran is “standing down” and welcoming de-escalation after growing tensions between Washington and Tehran prompted concerns the two could be on the brink of war.

Trump, in an address to the nation on Wednesday, made it clear he was looking for an off-ramp from further hostilities after missile strikes from Iran failed to kill or injure anyone at two Iraqi bases that house U.S. personnel and coalition forces.

Instead, he said the administration would impose additional economic sanctions on Tehran, called on European allies to play a larger role in ensuring stability in the region, and appealed to Iranian leaders to work with the U.S. on “shared priorities.”

“The United States is ready to embrace peace with all who seek it,” Trump said in prepared remarks.

For days, the world has been on edge, wondering how Iran would respond to a U.S. strike against a top Iranian general last week and what the Trump administration’s next moves would be.

Trump met Tuesday night and Wednesday morning with a cadre of officials, including Vice President Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and national security adviser Robert O’Brien, to discuss how to proceed.

Recent bombastic rhetoric and stern warnings from Trump against targeting American assets gave way in Wednesday’s address to an opening for diplomacy, though similar efforts have been fruitless thus far, and the president said the administration would “continue to evaluate options in response to Iranian aggression.”

The speech amounted in some respects to a victory lap for Trump, who roughly a week ago approved a strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, leader of Iran’s Quds Force, a designated terrorist organization, and did not see any Americans killed in the immediate response from Tehran.

“No American or Iraqi lives were lost because of the precautions taken, the dispersal of forces, and an early warning system that worked very well,” Trump said. “I salute the incredible skill and courage of America’s men and women in uniform.”

The president went on to brag that he had taken out Soleimani and ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi months apart. He excoriated the Obama administration for its “foolish” nuclear negotiations with Tehran. And the president boasted that recent investments in the military and oil production gave the U.S. significant leverage over Iran.

“The president is using this as further evidence that he’s a tough guy, that he knows how to deal with these kinds of adversaries, and that while the press and the so-called experts are hyperventilating about what comes next, he skates right through it,” said a former administration official who requested anonymity to speak candidly.

Trump’s tone on Wednesday was a welcome development for his allies on Capitol Hill. His words appeased hawkish Republicans who had celebrated the strike against Soleimani, while not further risking a break with his “America First” campaign rhetoric of ending U.S. involvement in foreign conflicts. 

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who on Tuesday night characterized the Iranian missile attacks as an “act of war,” declared Trump gave a “home run speech” on Wednesday.

“To the Iranian people: President Trump laid out a pathway forward for peace and prosperity,” Graham said in a statement. “I hope you take it.”

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a vocal opponent of U.S. involvement in foreign wars, tweeted that he spoke with Trump on Wednesday and the president indicated he opposes such a conflict with Iran.

“He doesn’t want endless wars,” Paul tweeted. “I continue to hope for de-escalation and diplomacy.”

But Wednesday’s address is unlikely to quell scrutiny of the administration’s broader strategy or settle the disquietude surrounding the U.S. policy in the Middle East. 

The Democratic-controlled House is slated to vote Thursday on limiting Trump’s future ability to take military action against Iran. 

Top officials have described the Soleimani strike as a defensive measure, built on intelligence showing the general was plotting attacks on American assets days away. They’ve declined to detail the intelligence publicly out of the need to protect sources in methods, though Trump has left open the possibility of declassifying some of it. 

Over the weekend, Trump threatened military action against Iran should it retaliate for Soleimani’s death by hitting U.S. assets or personnel. Tehran on Tuesday fired missiles at two bases in Iraq that house U.S. forces in what an Iranian official called a “proportional response.” 

But the strikes resulted in no casualties and limited damage to the facilities, a sign experts took to mean Iran was not looking to trigger a more aggressive American response.

Trump has been somewhat of a wild card on Iran. He has hammered Tehran with sanctions since withdrawing from the nuclear deal in 2018 and has been repeatedly tested by Iran’s provocative actions.

Over the past year, Iran shot down a U.S. drone, targeted foreign oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz and attacked Saudi oil facilities. In each instance, Trump opted to deploy additional troops and equipment to the region or impose sanctions, but abstained from directly targeting Tehran militarily.

He has also vacillated rhetorically between all-caps threats against Iran and its leaders and expressing a willingness to meet with those same officials. Trump’s unpredictability, particularly in an election year, could make it difficult for allies to get a handle on how he hopes to proceed in the region.

One government official said that the decision by Trump to strike Soleimani was viewed as unexpected among rank-and-file workers in national security policy given his past decisions on Iran. 

“It didn’t seem to be a slow escalation,” the official said.

Trump’s rhetoric has suggested he would have little appetite for armed conflict, especially during a year when he faces reelection. 

“I’m not surprised that both sides have taken a deep breath,” said Charles Kupchan, a former White House National Security Council aide under the Obama and Clinton administrations. “In fact, I was surprised by Trump’s decision to go after Soleimani and that’s because I think that Trump does not want to run for reelection having just launched a new war in the Middle East.”

There is still a possibility that Iran could target the U.S. in the weeks and months to come, possibly through a cyberattack or through one of its many proxy groups scattered around the globe.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called the missile strikes a “slap” but said “such military actions are not enough,” demanding an end to the U.S. presence in the region. 

“Considering the significance of Qassem Soleimani, there is a small part of me that is wondering if last night’s attack was a feint to make us think that it is all settled,” said Luke Coffey, a foreign policy expert at the Heritage Foundation, though he described further military response as unlikely at this point.

Tags Donald Trump Iran Iraq Lindsey Graham Mark Esper Mike Pence Mike Pompeo Rand Paul Steven Mnuchin

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