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U.S. steps back from brink of war with Iran

Zeke Miller
The Associated Press
President Donald Trump addresses the nation from the White House on the ballistic missile strike that Iran launched against Iraqi air bases housing U.S. troops, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020, in Washington, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, Vice President Mike Pence, and others look on. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. and Iran stepped back from the brink of possible war on Wednesday as President Donald Trump signaled he would not retaliate militarily for Iran’s missile strikes on Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops. No one was harmed in the strikes, but U.S. forces in the region remained on high alert.

Speaking from the White House, Trump seemed intent on deescalating the crisis, which spiraled after he authorized the targeted killing last week of Iran’s top general, Qassem Soleimani. Iran responded overnight with its most direct assault on America since the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, firing more than a dozen missiles at two installations in Iraq.

Even so, Trump’s takeaway was that “Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world.”

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Despite such conciliatory talk, the region remained on edge, and American troops, including a quick-reaction force dispatched over the weekend, were on high alert. Last week Iranian-backed militia besieged the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, and Tehran’s proxies in the region remain able to carry out attacks such as the one on Dec. 27 that killed a U.S. contractor and set off the most recent round of hostilities.

And there was no obvious path to diplomatic engagement, as Trump pledged to add to his “maximum pressure” campaign of economic sanctions. He said the new, unspecified sanctions would remain in place “until Iran changes its behavior.”

More to come? Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the overnight strike was not necessarily the totality of Iran’s response.

“Last night they received a slap,” Khamenei said. “These military actions are not sufficient (for revenge). What is important is that the corrupt presence of America in this region comes to an end.”

Trump, facing perhaps the biggest test of his presidency, credited the minimized damage to an early warning system “that worked very well” and said Americans should be “extremely grateful and happy” with the outcome.

The strikes had pushed Tehran and Washington perilously close to all-out conflict and left the world waiting to see whether the American president would respond with more military force. Trump, in his nine-minute televised address, spoke of a robust U.S. military with missiles that are “big, powerful, accurate, lethal and fast.” But then he added: “We do not want to use it.”

Iran for days had been promising to respond forcefully to Soleimani’s killing, but its limited strike on two bases — one in the northern Iraqi city in Irbil and the other at Ain al-Asad in western Iraq — appeared to signal that it, too, was uninterested in a wider clash with the U.S. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted that the country had “concluded proportionate measures in self-defense.”

State lawmakers respond: Members of Congress were briefed on the situation Wednesday in closed-door sessions on Capitol Hill, where Democrats and others expressed dissatisfaction with the administration’s justifications for the drone strike on Soleimani.

After the briefing, Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said he was surprised about the lack of details offered by officials. Questions that remain, he said, include the actual nature of the imminent threats Soleimani allegedly posed and whether the Trump administration conducted a cost-benefit analysis of killing him.

“It’s noteworthy that because of the gravity of these issues…. what was left when the briefers had to leave,” Casey said. “What was left was a lot of senators waiting to get their questions answered.”

Casey also pushed for the approval of a joint resolution proposed by Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., which would force the Senate to debate and vote on whether U.S. forces should engage in any future military action in Iran. Casey, who co-sponsors the legislation, has called for Congress to reassert its authority to declare war or authorize military force since the drone bombing that killed Soleimani.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., agreed that officials didn’t go into granular detail about the imminent threat that Trump’s administration has cited as a lead catalyst for prompt military

action. It was, however, enough for him to remain by the president’s side.

“They certainly convinced me there were very seriously, large-scale attacks that were very far along in the planning and very likely to be executed in the near future,” said Toomey.

The Republican also said that, based on the imminent threat, Trump was right to take out the top general and that the president doesn’t need congressional approval to save American lives.

He then voiced opposition to Kaine’s war powers resolution, citing fears that it could result in the country pulling its troops out of Iraq, potentially leading to an ISIS uprising.

Trump opened his remarks at the White House by reiterating his promise that “Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon.” Iran had announced in the wake of Soleimani’s killing that it would no longer comply with any of the limits on uranium enrichment in the 2015 nuclear deal crafted to keep it from building a nuclear device.

Moving forward: The president, who had earlier pulled the U.S. out of the deal, seized on the moment of calm to call for negotiations toward a new agreement that would do more to limit Iran’s ballistic missile programs and constrain regional proxy campaigns like those led by Soleimani.

Trump also announced he would ask NATO to become “much more involved in the Middle East process.” While he has frequently criticized NATO as obsolete and has encouraged participants to increase their military spending, Trump has tried to push the military alliance to refocus its efforts on modern threats.

Like the U.S. troops in the region, NATO forces have temporarily halted their training of Iraqi forces and their work to combat the Islamic State.

Soleimani’s death last week in an American drone strike in Baghdad prompted angry calls for vengeance and drew massive crowds of Iranians to the streets to mourn him. Khamenei himself wept at the funeral in a sign of his bond with the commander.

The Iranians fired a total of 15 missiles in the latest strikes, two U.S. officials said. Ten hit the Ain al-Asad air base in Iraq’s western Anbar province, and one targeted a base in Irbil in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region. Four failed, said the officials, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about a military operation.

U.S. defense officials said American early warning systems detected an incoming ballistic missile well in advance, providing U.S. and coalition forces adequate time to take shelter at both bases. Officials also said that the U.S. was aware of preparations for the attack. It’s unclear if any intelligence identified specific targets or was more general.

Ain al-Asad was first used by American forces after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, and it later was used by American troops in the fight against the Islamic State group. It houses about 1,500 U.S. and coalition forces. Trump visited it in December 2018, making his first presidential visit to troops in the region. Vice President Mike Pence visited both Ain al-Asad and Irbil in November.

Sanctions: Trump spoke of new sanctions on Iran, but it was not immediately clear what those would be. The primary agencies involved in implementing such penalties — the departments of Commerce, State and Treasury — do not preview those actions to prevent evasion.

Since withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal, the administration had already imposed harsh sanctions on nearly every significant portion of Iran’s economic, energy, shipping and military sectors.

Wednesday’s effort to deescalate the conflict came after world leaders, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, appealed for restraint.