President Donald Trump said Americans should be “extremely grateful” that Iran “appears to be standing down” a day after Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps launched a missile attack against two Iraqi military bases housing U.S. troops.
But Trump, in a televised address Wednesday, indicated that there will be no fundamental change in a U.S. policy of “confront and contain,” in Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s words on Tuesday—a policy that led to escalatory measures like the assassination of Iranian external defense chief Qassem Soleimani on Thursday, for which the missile attacks were Iran’s initial revenge.
While observers waited before the speech to hear of a diplomatic path away from a potential war, Trump instead announced a new wave of “additional punishing economic sanctions on the Iranian regime.” He reiterated the unrealized goal of his “Maximum Pressure” campaign, launched in 2018: for Iran to functionally surrender, by changing its entire Mideast strategy of confrontation to American interests. Trump described it as “a deal with Iran that makes Iran a safe and peaceful place.”
But Trump began his address by issuing a new threat, that “Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon.” It was an indication that his Maximum Pressure campaign, intended as a hardline alternative to the Obama administration’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), had not changed Iran’s behavior.
And while the subtext of Trump’s speech was that the U.S. does not seek a wider war, Trump repeatedly boasted of the power of the U.S. military, including its “big, powerful, accurate, lethal and fast” missiles. Using the terminology of cultural grievance at times, Trump also excluded Iran from the “civilized world.” And while he characterized the JCPOA as emboldening Iran to destabilize the Middle East, he elided Iran’s conspicuous lack of attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq during the period it was in force.
Iran has shown no interest in taking the sort of deal Trump has offered. Instead, after Soleimani’s assassination, Iran announced it would no longer abide by the uranium enrichment restrictions set by the JCPOA, dealing a further blow to the 2015 accord that the U.S.’ European allies have attempted for years to salvage. Trump, on Wednesday, urged Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China—the other JCPOA signatories—to “break with the remnants” of a deal that conservatives view as the legacy of the Obama administration.
Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, tweeted before the speech that its retribution for Soleimani will be to “kick all U.S. forces out of the region.” A Sunday vote in Iraq’s parliament, where Iran’s influence eclipses America’s, to evict U.S. forces represented a large step in that direction. But on Tuesday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper vowed that regardless of the vote by a nominal ally, in a representative institution constructed by the U.S. during the 2003-2011 occupation, the U.S. would not leave. Iraq’s caretaker prime minister has said U.S. forces ought to depart, prompting a threat of sanctions from Trump.
Jarrett Blanc, who oversaw JCPOA implementation at the State Department during the Obama administration, characterized Trump’s address as no deviation from the policy that brought the U.S. to the brink of war.
“The price of [Iran] coming to the table is partial sanctions relief. He took a step away from that,” said Blanc, now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Trump has created a status-quo crisis. That’s not sustainable.”
For now, U.S. officials appear content to wait and see whether Iran will escalate militarily in the coming days, something its mouthpieces indicated it seeks to avoid. “We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression,” Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted after the strikes, which left neither Americans nor Iraqis dead.
But it is unknown what the U.S. will do beyond this next round of sanctions. Pompeo, Esper, and CIA Director Gina Haspel will spend the afternoon on Capitol Hill briefing legislators. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), announced last night that he will hold a hearing on Tuesday in which he has invited Pompeo to testify.
Among the questions still surrounding the Soleimani assassination was the scope of the threat that the administration says the killing preempted. Pompeo had initially called it “imminent” but on Tuesday described it more as retribution for a week of escalated Iranian attacks that killed contractor Nawres Waleed Hamid of Sacramento and led to the seige of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Trump, on Wednesday, simply said Soleimani “was planning new attacks on American targets,” a characterization far short of imminence.
As is the case with so many national addresses by Trump, he dedicated a significant portion of his remarks on Wednesday morning to bragging and doing victory laps, and not only on his latest confrontation with Iran.
“Over the last three years, under my leadership, our economy is stronger than ever before and America has achieved energy independence,” Trump said. “These historic accomplishments changed our strategic priorities. These are accomplishments that nobody thought were possible.”
To Trump and his team, last Thursday’s strike was yet another one of those accomplishments, further proof that this president had one-upped prior administrations, particularly Trump’s direct predecessor and political enemy. In the days since he ordered the killing of Soleimani, Trump has taken to boasting to friends and advisers how the death of the Iranian general is “bigger than Bin Laden,” according to two people with knowledge of the president’s private comments.
His comment mirrored what he’d said in October about killing ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, another death that Trump insists is a greater success than the Bin Laden raid ordered by President Barack Obama.