Flanked by Military Brass, Trump Backs Off War Footing

President announces he’s imposing new sanctions in response to Iranian missile strike.

By Lara Seligman and Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks about the situation with Iran
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks about the situation with Iran in the Grand Foyer of the White House in Washington on Jan. 8. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday backed off threats of military retaliation after Iran launched more than a dozen missiles against American and coalition targets in Iraq, opening the door to de-escalation even while slapping new sanctions on Tehran. 

Flanked by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, and the nation’s top military brass, Trump’s address more than 12 hours after the attack sent mixed signals. Noting that Iran “appears to be standing down,” Trump said he will continue to evaluate “options” in response to Iranian aggression. But he did not announce additional military steps, instead deciding to slap “additional punishing economic sanctions” on Tehran. 

Trump confirmed that no American lives were lost in the attack—a red line for the administration—due to intelligence from an “early warning system that worked very well.” There also appeared to be no Iraqi or British lives lost.

Following the attacks on Tuesday, there were signs both sides wanted to de-escalate after a U.S. military strike that killed a senior Iranian military leader, Qassem Suleimani. In Washington, lawmakers called on the president to resolve the threat peacefully. Meanwhile, reports emerged that Iran deliberately used older missiles and was not intending to kill Americans. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said early Wednesday local time that Tehran had “concluded” its attacks and did “not seek escalation or war.”

“The fact that we have this great military does not mean we have to use it. We do not want to use it,” Trump said. “The United States is ready to embrace peace.”

Trump also called on NATO to “become much more involved in the Middle East process,” in a signal that the United States would consult with allies that were alarmed by the dramatic escalation in tensions following the U.S. military strike that killed a senior Iranian military figure. He did not offer specifics on NATO’s increased role. 

At the same time, Trump raised the 2015 nuclear pact with Iran, which he withdrew from in 2018, and called on allies to “all work together toward making a deal with Iran that makes the world a safer and more peaceful place.” Key European allies, however, still support the earlier deal.

Despite widespread speculation over the past few days that the United States will be ending its military presence in Iraq—including a draft letter the Pentagon called a “mistake” indicating as much—Trump gave no signs a withdrawal was imminent. Instead, he called for the United States and Iran to work together to defeat the Islamic State terrorist group, a “natural enemy.” 

Still, Trump’s remarks came as NATO announced it is temporarily suspending some of its training of Iraqi soldiers battling the Islamic State. Canada and the United Kingdom also announced they would temporarily move or withdraw their forces from Iraq in response to the heightened tensions.

Esper was expected to brief members of Congress on the situation on Wednesday afternoon, according to a Pentagon spokesperson.

Some experts expressed optimism that both sides are standing down but cautioned that tensions were still sky-high, and the next round of reprisals could come indirectly through Iranian proxies in the region—with or without Tehran’s consent.

Suleimani kept a tight leash on Iranian proxy groups in the region, and in the wake of his death, it’s unclear whether they will continue to wait for Tehran’s green light before carrying out attacks.

“We are going to have the possibility of proxies acting on their own, without the kind of command and control that Qassem Suleimani had developed and had been able to exercise the actions of these proxies,” said Randa Slim, a scholar at the Middle East Institute. “There is the possibility of some of these operators acting outside the rules of engagement … arguing they are doing this to avenge the death of Suleimani.”

“It’s tempting to hope that both sides can now declare victory and go home. Yet it’s unlikely that we’ve now seen the full measure of Iran’s retaliation for the Soleimani killing,” said Richard Fontaine, CEO of the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based think tank. “The most acute phase may have passed, but the crisis goes on.”

Update, Jan. 8, 2020: This article was updated to include additional quotes from Randa Slim. 

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer