After days of bellicose statements, conflicting messages and threats following the U.S. assassination of Iranian military general Qasem Soleimani, President Trump sought to de-escalate tension with Iran in a televised address on Wednesday.
“Iran appears to be standing down,” Trump said the morning after Iran launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles at Iraqi military bases that house American forces. Trump said that no American or Iraqi forces were killed in the strike, which Iran said was retaliation for Soleimani’s killing last week. “The American people should be extremely grateful and happy,” Trump said.
In Tuesday’s non-lethal strike, Iran offered Trump an “off-ramp,” a senior U.S. official told TIME, and on Wednesday, Trump appeared to take it, despite vowing previously he might initiate a “disproportionate” response if Iran were to “strike any U.S. person or target” and threatening to target Iranian cultural sites, which would violate the law. Instead, after nearly bringing the United States and Iran to the brink of conflict, Trump returned to square one, blaming former President Barack Obama for signing the multi-lateral nuclear deal that emboldened Iran and criticizing NATO allies for not shouldering more of the world’s security burdens— two common scapegoats for Trump.
The president said he plans to impose additional economy-crippling sanctions on Iran, but by moving the goalposts of U.S. aggression from retaliation over the Soleimani killing to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, he returned to his initial adversarial position towards Iran while allowing both countries to veer away from full blown war— at least for the moment.
In his address, Trump shifted the conversation away from red lines on retaliatory strikes back to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, which he has harshly criticized since his earliest days in politics and withdrew the United States from in 2018. The first words out of Trump’s mouth when he approached the lectern — before he said “Good morning” — were, “As long as I’m President of the United States, Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon.” He claimed Iran went on a “terrorist spree funded by the money” from the nuclear deal and says the expiration of the deal “gives Iran a clear and quick path to nuclear breakout.”
Flanked by Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, Trump called on the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia and China to also withdraw from the deal. “We must all work together toward making a deal with Iran that makes the world a safer and more peaceful place,” Trump said. “We must also make a deal that allows Iran to thrive and prosper and take advantage of its enormous untapped potential.”
The question is now whether Trump will maintain this posture. While he seemingly brought the U.S. and Iran back from the precipice of war, his often conflicting statements and erratic behavior on Twitter have still left allies and the military reeling.
“The problem is that the U.S. is doing more to keep its allies and its own forces off balance than its potential threats,” says Anthony Cordesman, a former Pentagon intelligence official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“The constant sudden shifts in policy, the uncertain future status of U.S. forces overseas, treating allies as if transactional bargains could shape enduring alliances, and failing to seriously review the shaping of U.S. strategy and budgets is systematically undermining the U.S. position all over the world.”
—With reporting from W.J. Hennigan/Washington