So much for the notion that, after Tuesday’s Iranian missile strikes, President Donald Trump would start winding this crisis down. To the contrary, he said in his Wednesday morning speech that the crisis is still on and that he is stepping up pressure on Tehran.
“We are continuing to evaluate options” in response to Iran’s aggression, Trump said, with the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff standing behind him, suggesting that military escalation is still a possibility. Meanwhile, he added, he would impose “new sanctions” on Iran’s economy until the regime “changes its behavior,” scuttling rumors and reports from the night before that Trump would seek an “off-ramp” to the growing tensions between the two nations.
In particular, Trump continued to denounce the Iran nuclear deal as “foolish” and claimed that Tehran’s “terrorist spree” was funded by the money that President Barack Obama gave the regime as part of the deal. This was a false charge in three ways. First, the money consisted of Iranian assets that had been frozen because of Iran’s illegal nuclear program and that were, therefore, freed when the program was dismantled. Second, during the three years that the nuclear deal was in place, Iran launched no attacks on oil tankers or U.S. military bases; those began only after Trump pulled out of the deal. Third, Iran’s attacks haven’t cost much to execute; they could have been done if sanctions had never been lifted (and they were lifted only partially before they were reimposed).
More to the point in this context, Trump’s remarks indicate that he has no interest in reviving the deal or returning to the negotiating table—a step that many have seen as a prerequisite to ending the current standoff between the two nations.
That was the main message of this speech: Trump is not escalating the military conflict in response to Iran’s missile strikes—mainly because, as he noted in the speech, no American or Iraqi troops were killed or wounded in the attack. (According to some reports, Trump delayed giving a speech, originally scheduled for Tuesday night, until he found out whether there had been any casualties.) However, he is not taking steps to de-escalate the broader conflict either.
Ever since the killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, many commentators—including retired U.S. commanders who despise and distrust the Iranian regime and especially the Quds Force that Soleimani commanded—have urged Trump to use the occasion to de-escalate the conflict. Some reports quoted current officials saying on background that Trump was prepared to do just that. Anticipating a much more conciliatory speech, some analysts hailed Trump’s moves as a successful diplomatic strategy and a positive step toward peace.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif suggested that his government would welcome such a move, tweeting shortly after Tuesday night’s attack that his country “took & concluded proportionate measures in self-defense under Article 51 of UN charter,” targeting only the base from which Trump had launched his attacks on Iranian-backed militias and on Quds commander Soleimani. (Italics added.) This suggested that Iran’s retaliation was over—that it would launch no additional strikes—as long as the United States also held its fire.
Trump is holding fire for now, but he made it very clear that he is reserving the right to return more—and that, meanwhile, he is taking no steps toward a peaceful resolution of the broader conflict. All concessions will have to come from Tehran.
He did make one curious comment, which Iran might take as some encouragement. He called on NATO to “become more involved in the Middle East process,” noting that the United States was energy-independent and thus no longer relied on the region’s oil. The possible implication is that Trump will order further withdrawals of U.S. troops from the region, telling western European allies—who are more dependent on Mideast oil—to take over. One of Iran’s strategic goals has been to push the United States out of the Middle East, and particularly out of Iraq. On that level, was Trump handing Iran a win—and one consistent with his isolationist leanings? It’s hard to say.
Meanwhile, he touted America’s military strength (though wildly overstating that he had “rebuilt” the armed forces during his presidency), noting that even if U.S. troops were pulled out, he could launch massive airstrikes any time he chose. Yet the night before, the Iranians demonstrated that they too could launch missile strikes at U.S. sites. This was the first time Iran—rather than some Iranian-backed proxy force—has launched a strike against a U.S. military base and openly taken credit for it.
In other words, we are right back where we were two weeks ago, before the round of escalating strikes began. The tensions that sparked the crisis remain unresolved. If anything, they’ve been aggravated. This story is not yet over; we’re probably closer to its beginning than we are to its end.