US President Donald Trump delivers a statement about Iran flanked by US defence secretary Mark Esper, army chief of staff general James McConville, joint chiefs of staff chair Mark Milley and Vice-President Mike Pence at the White House in Washington, the US, January 8 2020. Picture: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE
US President Donald Trump delivers a statement about Iran flanked by US defence secretary Mark Esper, army chief of staff general James McConville, joint chiefs of staff chair Mark Milley and Vice-President Mike Pence at the White House in Washington, the US, January 8 2020. Picture: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE

Washington — US President Donald Trump backed away from the precipice of war with Iran after the Islamic Republic attacked US bases in Iraq with a barrage of missiles the Pentagon believes was intended to cause no casualties.

In televised remarks to the nation on Wednesday, Trump defended the US strike on a top Iranian general that touched off the missile barrage and said he would impose new sanctions on Tehran.

“As long as I’m president of the US, Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon,” Trump said as he began his speech.

But he also offered the country’s regime a diplomatic opening. Any new nuclear deal, he said, must allow “Iran to thrive and prosper, and take advantage of its enormous untapped potential. Iran can be a great country”.

Iran fired more than a dozen guided missiles at two US bases in Iraq in retaliation for the killing of major-general Qassem Soleimani. But a Pentagon analysis of the attack suggested the missiles were aimed at unpopulated parts of the bases, according to people familiar with the matter.

A US official said the American military had indications well ahead of launching that missiles were to be fired, giving them time to move about 1,000 personnel at the Al Asad base into hardened shelters and to take other measures. Satellite imagery of the bases provided by Planet Labs showed damaged aircraft hangers and other structures at the Al Asad airbase in western Iraq following the strike.

“Iran appears to be standing down,” Trump said. “Which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world.”

Iran’s restraint and Trump’s measured remarks in response suggest a path towards easing tensions with Tehran, which surged after Soleimani’s killing in a US drone strike near the Baghdad airport last week.

Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif said on Twitter earlier on Wednesday that the missile attack “concluded” Iran’s retaliation for Soleimani’s killing. Even if Tehran refrains from further direct attacks, it might still seek reprisals through more covert means, such as attacks by proxy militias or in cyberspace.

An Iranian official said earlier this week that its government was considering 13 means of retaliation that would inflict a “historic nightmare” on the US.

The S&P 500 pushed to a fresh intraday record after Trump’s remarks. Treasuries turned lower after spiking overnight following the Iranian attack. Oil fell below $61 a barrel in New York.

‘Top terrorist’

Trump said Soleimani was “the world’s top terrorist” and was “personally responsible for some of the absolutely worst atrocities”, including the training of “terrorist armies” and “fuelling bloody civil wars across the region”. He said Iranian weapons Soleimani supplied to Iraqi militants had injured or killed thousands of US troops.

Trump had threatened to strike 52 Iranian targets were any Americans killed in Tehran’s reprisals for Soleimani’s death.

He said on Wednesday that “peace and stability cannot prevail in the Middle East as long as Iran continues to foment violence, unrest, hatred and war”. New sanctions would remain in place until the Islamic Republic becomes less bellicose, he said.

Trump said he would ask the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation to become more involved in the Mideast, without elaboration.

The Pentagon said that the two bases struck by Iranian missiles — the sprawling Al Asad and a smaller base near the city of Erbil — had already been on high alert, and Iraq’s government said it had been forewarned of the Iranian attack. There were no Iraqi casualties from the Iranian strike.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei described the attacks on the bases as a “crushing response”.

“Last night, they got a slap in the face,” he said on state television. He again demanded that the US presence in the Mideast come to an end, a sign that Tehran’s ultimate goal remains to push the American military out of Iraq.

Nuclear accord

Trump escalated tensions with Iran in 2018 by withdrawing from the nuclear accord negotiated by his predecessor, Barack Obama, and reimposing sanctions that have crushed the Iranian economy. Iran responded by arming and directing proxy militias across the region that have caused trouble for the US and its allies in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

The missiles Iran fired at US bases on Wednesday, Trump claimed, “were paid for by the funds made available by the last administration”. He provided no substantiation, but has frequently criticised Obama for releasing frozen Iranian assets to Tehran after the nuclear accord was completed.

Soleimani, regarded as the second most powerful person in Iran, commanded the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Quds Force, the expeditionary arm of the Iranian military that provided support for proxy groups. Trump ordered him killed after a December 27 rocket attack on a joint US-Iraqi base near Kirkuk resulted in the death of an American contractor. The US blamed the attack on an Iran-backed militia and killed its leader in the strike on Soleimani.

Trump has said that Soleimani was planning “imminent” attacks on US forces in the Mideast, though his administration has provided little evidence for the claim.

Democrats and a few Republicans have criticised the Soleimani strike, saying it would endanger US diplomatic and military personnel in the region.

Bloomberg