President Donald Trump’s strike against Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Iraq last week seemed like a departure from Trump’s general aversion to using force (as opposed to merely threatening it) and a significant escalation of the conflict with Iran. Fears of a larger blow-up proliferated; “World War III” began trending on social media. When word came out last night that Iran had launched ballistic missiles against two US military bases in Iraq, it initially seemed as though such fears were coming to fruition. The White House indicated that it would be addressing the nation that night, only to change course, leading to today’s statement by President Trump instead. Waiting for the light of day before making an official statement was a useful decision, as the picture that emerged of the Iranian retaliatory strike was significantly different than what was feared.
As details have emerged, its become clearer that Iran’s strike was quite calculated. Iran’s leaders were purposeful to use the official Iranian military (rather than the Iranian-backed Shia militias that Soleimani supported and coordinated until his death) and to target clear US military sites. This recent cycle of violence between the US and Iran started when a rocket attack killed an American contractor; in contrast, last night’s strike did not take any American lives, seemingly by design. Importantly, the Iranians apparently warned the Iraqis and other parties in advance of the strike, allowing them (and the Americans, who were in turn told of the incoming attacks in addition to detecting them through US early-warning technology) to take cover. Finally, while Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei called the missile strike a “slap in the face” to the US, Iran’s Foreign Minister made carefully-worded remarks that last night’s strike “concluded proportionate measures in self-defense,” indicating that this was the end of Iran’s official retaliation.
In short, the Iranian leadership seems to have (successfully) threaded the careful needle of responding to domestic pressure for retaliation against America while stopping short of provoking a further escalation. It was, of course, up to President Trump to take the opportunity to de-escalate in a way that saved face for all parties involved and, perhaps surprisingly, Trump did just that in his short speech today. Granted, large portions of Trump’s remarks were dedicated to keeping up tough talk and significant pressure against Iran. Trump condemned General Soleimani (saying his “hands were drenched in both American and Iranian blood”) and compared him to slain ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (perhaps trying to get a do-over after killing the ISIS leader failed to significantly bolster Trump’s popularity or image in the US). The President doubled down on US sanctions against the Islamic Republic (and threw in potshots and half-truths against President Obama and his deal with Iran). Trump announced that he was requesting NATO to become significantly more involved in US efforts in the Middle East. Trump again touted US military superiority and pointed to new weapons being developed by the American military.
But President Trump explicitly pointed out that the US having such weapons does not mean that it has to use them, a common-sense notion that is nonetheless contrary to the President’s usual bluster. He again reiterated the goal of negotiating a new nuclear deal with Iran. Trump proposed renewed cooperation between the US and Iran against ISIS (something that, the Iranian leaders continue to point out, was among General Soleimani’s roles as top military leader in Iran) and concerning “other shared priorities.“ Finally, it’s notable that even though the first half of the speech contained significant condemnations of Soleimani and the Iranian government in general, it ended on a sustained positive note:
Finally, to the people and leaders of Iran, we want you to have a future and a great future, one that you deserve, one of prosperity at home in harmony. With the nations of the world, the United States is ready to embrace peace with all who seek it.
Tensions of course remain extremely high between the US and Iran (and Iranian allies, such as those Shia militias in Iraq), and any number of spark points could cause new conflict to erupt. But for the moment at least, it seems that clearer heads are prevailing at the top. This does not mean that negotiating a new deal with Iran is any easier than it was a week ago (killing a country’s most popular leader doesn’t generally create the kind of goodwill that makes negotiations more likely) or that any such deal will improve upon the one that was torn up by the Trump Administration. But for now, the American and Iranian governments have retreated to a political stalemate rather than a direct armed conflict, which is good for lives on all sides (Americans, Iranians, and others like the Iraqis caught in the middle). This renewed standoff between Iran and the US may not be indefinitely sustainable, but for the time being, Khamenei and Trump have cancelled the apocalypse.