Iran struck back at the United States early on Wednesday for killing its most powerful military commander, firing a barrage of ballistic missiles at two Iraqi military bases that house American troops in what was initially feared to become an escalation of the conflict. But the two sides stepped back with US President Donald Trump indicating his country would not launch a further military response.
Speaking from the White House, Trump said no American troops were harmed and damages were minimal after the Iranian strikes, which leaders in Tehran said was a “tight slap” for the United States amid rising domestic anger.
Trump also announced new economic sanctions against Iran and vowed, once again, to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons. He did not offer any specifics of the “additional punishing economic sanctions on the Iranian regime”.
But the President signalled that he did not intend to use military power in response to the missiles Tehran rained on US forces in Iraq’s Erbil and al-Asad air bases.
“The fact that we have this great military and equipment, however, does not mean we have to use it. We do not want to use it. American strength, both military and economic, is the best deterrent,” Trump said in a televised address from the White House, flanked by top officials of his administration.
“Iran appears to be standing down which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world,” he said.
Trump said he would ask NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) to play a larger role in West Asia, and urge the remaining signatories of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or the Iran nuclear deal) to withdraw, following the American pullout in 2018, to force Iran to sign a new agreement.
The agreement is already unraveling, with Tehran announcing on Sunday that it would roll back the limit on the number of centrifuges used in uranium enrichment, one of its commitments under the agreement.
“The time has come for the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia, and China to recognise this reality. They must now break away from the remnants of the Iran deal, or JCPOA,” Trump said.
And then he sent a message of peace. “The United States is ready to embrace peace with all who seek it,” he said.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei earlier on Wednesday made clear that Iran’s actions were in response to the US killing of Revolutionary Guard general Qassem Soleimani, whose death last week in a drone strike in Baghdad prompted angry calls for vengeance and drew massive crowds of Iranians to the streets in mourning. Khamenei himself wept at the funeral in a sign of his bond with the commander.
“Last night they received a slap,” Khamenei said in a speech after the missile strikes. “These military actions are not sufficient (for revenge). What is important is that the corrupt presence of America in this region comes to an end.”
Trump said early warning systems helped prevent casualties in Iran’s missile attack, but there were also reports that indicated Iran provided advanced warning of the attacks to the Iraqis, who passed it on the US and coalition forces.
Also, there were suggestions that Iran intentionally avoided hitting US forces because the attack was only intended to send a signal in the aftermath of the killing of General Qassem Soleimani, who headed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, in a US drone strike last Friday.
An Iranian army spokesperson denied “foreign media reports” suggesting there had been some kind of coordination between Iran and the US before the attack to allow bases to be evacuated, Fars news agency said.
Iranian state television said Iran fired 15 ballistic missiles from its territory at US targets. The Pentagon said al-Asad air base and another facility in Erbil were targeted.
According to the Iraqi military, 22 missiles were fired between 1:45am -2:45am (4:15am-5:15am IST) on Wednesday. The Iranian state TV put the number at 15. While 10 missiles hit the al-Asad air base, which played a key role in the campaign against the Islamic State, one missile hit Erbil, according to two US officials who did not want to be named. They said four missiles failed.
Iranian state television said 80 “American terrorists” had been killed, and US helicopters and military equipment damaged. It did not say how it obtained that information.
Germany, Denmark, Norway and Poland said none of their troops in Iraq were hurt. Britain, which also has personnel in Iraq, condemned the Iranian action and said Tehran “should not repeat these reckless and dangerous attacks”.
Experts said the Iranian action appeared calibrated to avoid an escalation into an all-out war. Iran’s attacks “appeared designed for maximum domestic effect with minimum escalatory risk,” Henry Rome, an analyst with Eurasia Group, told news agency Associated Press.
“For a president who wants to avoid a war in the Middle East during an election year, the Iranians have provided an off-ramp he will likely take,” Rome said.
In first reactions to the Iranian strike, Trump had earlier tweeted: “All is well”. “Missiles launched from Iran at two military bases located in Iraq. Assessment of casualties & damages taking place now. So far, so good! We have the most powerful and well equipped military anywhere in the world, by far! I will be making a statement tomorrow morning,” he wrote.
He then went into a huddle with his top national security officials. Defence secretary Mark Esper and secretary of state Mike Pompeo were seen driving into the White House.