WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump yesterday said Iran appeared to be “standing down” after missile strikes against Iraqi bases housing US troops that caused no US casualties, indicating there would be no immediate new military response. In a televised address to the nation from the White House, Trump emphasized that there were “no Americans harmed” in the salvo of missiles aimed at two bases.
While he promised to immediately impose “punishing” new economic sanctions against Iran, Trump welcomed signs that Iran “appears to be standing down” in the tit-for-tat confrontation, signaling that the United States did not plan a new military riposte. Trump closed his remarks by addressing Iranians directly, saying that he was “ready to embrace peace with all who seek it.”
However, the US president, facing both an impeachment trial in Congress and a tough reelection in November, touted his decision to order the killing of top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani last Friday – the operation that prompted Tehran’s missile strike. Soleimani, a national hero in Iran, was “the world’s top terrorist” and “should have been terminated long ago”, Trump said.
Although Trump ended his remarks with the call for peace, he opened by stating bluntly that he would never allow Iran to procure a nuclear weapon. He then urged European allies and other world powers to follow America’s lead in abandoning a teetering international agreement on managing the country’s nuclear ambitions.
Iran’s missiles targeted the sprawling Ain al-Asad airbase in western Iraq and a base in Irbil, both housing American and other foreign troops deployed in a US-led coalition fighting the remnants of the Islamic State group. Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called the missiles a “slap in the face” for the United States and indicated that more was to come. “An important incident has happened. The question of revenge is another issue,” Khamenei said in a speech broadcast live on state television.
Iranian television reported an official in the supreme leader’s office as saying the missile attacks were the “weakest” of several retaliation scenarios. It quoted another source saying Iran had lined up 100 other potential targets. State media showed footage of what it said were Iran’s missiles being fired into the night sky. In the background, voices shouted “God is greatest”. It also showed purported images of the blasts where they struck. It was not possible to verify the images’ authenticity.
The office of Iraq’s premier said it had received “an official verbal message” from Iran informing it that a missile attack on US forces was imminent. “Iraq rejects any violation of its sovereignty and attacks on its territory,” the statement said, without specifically condemning the missile strikes. Iraqi President Barham Saleh denounced the attack and said it rejected attempts to turn Iraq into a “battlefield for warring sides”.
Speaker of Parliament Mohammed Al-Halbusi also took a tough line, slamming the strikes as an “Iranian violation of Iraqi sovereignty”, stressing Iraq should not be used to “settle scores”. Iraq’s military said it sustained no casualties in 22 missile strikes, most of them hitting Ain Al-Asad. Trump had said initial casualty assessments indicated “all is well”.
The brazenness of the strike was highly unusual for Iran, which has tended to disguise attacks on US interests or troops through its use of proxy Shiite forces. “Ballistic missiles openly launched from Iran onto American targets is a new phase,” said Phillip Smyth, an expert on Shiite militias. But as the dust settled, it appeared that Iran’s strike – coming soon after the burial of Soleimani at a funeral in front of vast crowds – might have been more symbolic than anything.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps warned any US counter-attack would be met with an even “more crushing response” and threatened to strike Israel and America’s “allied governments”. However, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif seemed to indicate that Iran was satisfied for now. “Iran took and concluded proportionate measures in self-defense,” Zarif said on Twitter. He said the strikes targeted a base from which a “cowardly armed attack against our citizens and senior officials” was launched.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the Islamic republic’s response shows “we don’t retreat in the face of America”. “If America has committed a crime… it should know that it will receive a decisive response,” Rouhani said in a televised address. “If they are wise, they won’t take any other action at this juncture.”
But Rouhani said it would not be enough if Iran’s armed forces hit back for any other action taken by the US. “In my view, America must receive the main response from the nations of the region,” he said. The president was repeating a common refrain among Iranian officials since the assassination that Soleimani’s death will see US forces leave the region.
“They cut off the hand of our dear Soleimani. The revenge for him is to cut off America’s feet from this region,” Rouhani said. “If America’s feet is cut off from this region, and its hand of aggression is cut off for good, this is the real and final response of the nations of the region to America,” he added.
The strikes sparked worldwide condemnation, including from NATO, Germany, France and the UK. France said its forces deployed in Iraq sustained no casualties while the UK was concerned about “reports” of victims as British troops are stationed there. The Norwegian military said coalition troops were warned of the attack in advance through intelligence channels.
The apparent de-escalation did not remove pressure from approximately 5,200 US troops stationed across Iraq, where Iran has close links to powerful armed Shiite militias. And Iranian allies in the country said they still intend to take revenge for Friday’s US attack in which top Iraqi paramilitary commander Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis was killed alongside Soleimani.
Muhandis was the deputy head of Iraq’s Hashed al-Shaabi, a military network incorporated into the Iraqi state whose factions are backed by Tehran. Paramilitary chief Qais al-Khazali – blacklisted as a “terrorist” by the US – said his side’s response to the United States” will be no less than the size of the Iranian response”. The Iraqi parliament has called for expulsion of US troops in the wake of the operation last week and there was embarrassing confusion at the Pentagon over the US response.
Separately, a Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737 crashed just outside Tehran after taking off bound for Kiev, killing all 176 people on board. There was no immediate suggestion of any link with the Iranian strikes but carriers including Air France, Royal Dutch Airlines and Lufthansa announced they were suspending flying though Iranian and Iraqi airspace as a precaution. The US aviation regulator banned civil flights over Iraq, Iran and the Gulf, citing the potential for “misidentification” of aircraft. – Agencies