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U.S. and Iran Back Away From Open Conflict

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 1/8/2020 Alex Leary, Nancy A. Youssef, Aresu Eqbali, Sune Engel Rasmussen


President Trump moved Wednesday to de-escalate hostilities with Iran, signaling no new U.S. military strikes following an Iranian missile barrage on Iraqi bases housing American and allied military forces that resulted in no casualties.

“Iran appears to be standing down,” Mr. Trump said in a televised address on Wednesday, his first public reaction beyond a tweet Tuesday evening after the salvos of missiles were fired from Iran.

Hours after the president spoke, Iraqi security officials said two rockets landed in Baghdad’s Green Zone, where the U.S. Embassy and other diplomatic missions are located. They said they caused no casualties and it wasn’t clear who had fired them.

Neil Peart, Donald Trump, Mike Pence standing next to a person in a suit and tie © kevin lamarque/Reuters

While the president signaled an ease in tensions that had been building toward military confrontation, he nonetheless maintained a stern tone in his nearly 10-minute speech. He vowed to maintain efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and said new sanctions would be imposed against Iran. He again defended the targeted killing of a top military commander, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, calling him a “ruthless terrorist.”

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Broadly, however, the president’s comments were seen as signaling a calmer period, a course also reflected in comments from Iranian leaders in the wake of Wednesday’s limited attacks.

“He doesn’t want endless wars,” Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.) wrote on Twitter after speaking with the president Wednesday. “I continue to hope for de-escalation and diplomacy.”

Analysts said that however much restraint was exhibited by either side, the situation could quickly spiral out of control.

For its part, the Pentagon rejected suggestions that the Iranians purposely avoided striking U.S. and Iraqi personnel based at Al Asad air base and at another base in Erbil in northern Iraq.

“I believe based on what I saw, and what I know, that they were intended to cause structural damage—destroy vehicles, equipment and aircraft—and kill personnel,” said Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

A U.S. defense official said U.S. early-warning systems detected the incoming ballistic missiles well in advance, giving U.S. and coalition forces time to take protective measures.

Amid lingering uncertainty about Iran’s intentions, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security sent a nationwide joint intelligence bulletin to law-enforcement agencies on Wednesday warning that Iran could carry out physical attacks and cyberattacks against U.S. interests in the near future, according to security officials. The warning, first reported by CNN, had been in the works for several days and wasn’t prompted by a specific concern or development, one official said.

Mr. Trump didn’t propose negotiations with Iran and fanned partisan fires in Washington by blaming the Obama administration for signing onto a 2015 nuclear deal that freed up Iran’s access to billions of dollars, asserting those funds paid for weapons used in the attack.

Democrats blasted that as false, noting the deal was forged by an international coalition and was meant to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons and prod it toward normalized international relations. Congressional Democrats also continued to question the intelligence that led Mr. Trump to order the Jan. 3 strike against Gen. Soleimani.

Trump administration and intelligence officials on Wednesday held classified briefings for House and Senate members on the conflict with Iran, seeking to justify the airstrike. Lawmakers were told that U.S. intelligence intercepted communications involving Gen. Soleimani that pointed at future plots, according to a person familiar with the matter. But, this person said, the communications were open to interpretation and some lawmakers didn’t deem them conclusive.

While many Republicans were supportive of Mr. Trump’s decision, at least two GOP senators said they would support a legislative measure to direct Mr. Trump cease hostilities against Iran until he obtained congressional approval, a move the administration opposes.

One of them, Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah) said the presentation Wednesday “was probably the worst briefing I have seen, at least on a military issue, in the nine years that I’ve served in the United States Senate.”

The president, who has been critical of the U.S. presence in Iraq, called on other nations to help craft a new nuclear accord with Iran and said the North Atlantic Treaty Organization must become more involved in the Middle East.

Mr. Trump and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg spoke by phone Wednesday and agreed NATO could contribute more to regional stability and the fight against international terrorism, according to a statement released by the 29-nation alliance, which noted it already plays a “key role” in fighting terrorism.

The White House said Mr. Trump had been in contact with other world leaders, including U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Mr. Trump said the U.S. would immediately impose more economic sanctions against Iran, though details weren’t provided Wednesday. The Trump administration’s sanctions regime, imposed as the U.S. withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear accord, has already crippled Iran’s economy by hitting most of its main revenue sources, including oil, metals, finance, construction and shipping.

Analysts and former officials have said the U.S. could tighten its financial vice further by restricting remaining Iranian trade and finance channels and by blacklisting the firms, banks, vessels and individuals helping Tehran evade sanctions.

Officials have said the U.S. is considering sanctions restricting the purchase by Iran of goods, material and machines to keep the sputtering economy running. Iran currently uses oil income in escrowed accounts overseas for imports of industrial goods needed to keep factories online.

Even before Mr. Trump spoke, the limited nature of the Iranian strike suggested a slight cooling of U.S.-Iranian tensions.

“Iran took & concluded proportionate measures in self-defense,” Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, wrote on Twitter, adding the country does “not seek escalation or war.”

Mr. Trump late Tuesday tweeted, “All is well!”

In a speech broadcast Wednesday on state television, Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, said Iran’s ultimate goal was to expel U.S. forces from the Mideast.

“Last night, they were given one slap,” he said. “Such military actions are not enough as far the importance of retaliation is concerned. What’s important is that their corruption-creating presence should end.”

Caught in the middle is Iraq, whose government released a statement saying it rejected all attacks carried out on its soil. “The Iraqi government will continue its efforts to prevent escalation and invites all parties to exercise self-restraint,” the statement read.

Iraqi security forces said 22 rockets fell on sites housing coalition forces early Wednesday morning local time, including two that didn’t explode. That count differed from tallies by the U.S., which said 15 were fired, with four failing.

A spokesman for Iraq’s prime minister’s office said it had been informed by Iran shortly beforehand that an attack would take place, and that it would be limited to unspecified U.S. military locations. Following the killing of Gen. Soleimani, Iraq’s parliament passed a resolution calling for the expulsion of American forces.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the rockets fired late Wednesday at Baghdad’s Green Zone. Following the Iranian missile attack, some Iraqi paramilitary commanders said they would avenge the death of their own leader, Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, who was killed alongside Gen. Soleimani by Friday’s U.S. airstrike.

Earlier in the day, Qais al-Khazali, the commander of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, said while Iran had responded to Gen. Soleimani’s killing, Iraqis had yet to avenge the killing of Mr. Mohandes. “[The Iraqis’] response will be no smaller than the Iranian response,” he said. “That’s a promise.”

Iran’s attack was aimed at two audiences, said Dina Esfandiary, a London-based fellow with The Century Foundation think tank: at the U.S. to show a desire to de-escalate by not killing any Americans, as well as at Iranians to meet a demand for revenge.

“It would have been impossible for them to sit quiet in the corner and be alright with the assassination of one of their most senior and popular officials. So they had to do something,” Ms. Esfandiary said.

The attack, and footage of the missile launches broadcast by state television, garnered praise from many Iranian social-media users for the Revolutionary Guard. Other Iranians on Twitter mocked the Guard for failing to inflict much damage.

“I don’t think their intention was to inflict casualties,” said Mohammad Marandi, a professor at the University of Tehran. “It was a warning shot.”

Whatever the intentions, the possible impact of this and any future exchanges are hard to predict.

“For a symbolic attack, ballistic missiles are a wild tool,” said Fabian Hinz, a research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California. “It’s like doing a symbolic attack with a hammer.”

The Iranian attack in the early hours of Wednesday prompted Saudi Arabia’s state tanker operator to suspend transits through the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow waterway between the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean through which some 20% of the world’s oil supply passes.

Kuwait’s government said Wednesday that the social-media account of its state news agency KUNA was hacked. It said posts had appeared on the account saying U.S. military forces in Kuwait would withdraw from the Gulf state.

The state news agency later issued a statement saying the posts weren’t legitimate. It didn’t say who may have perpetrated the hack or how long the social-media account wasn’t under government control.

Iran’s attack came after funeral marches over the past few days for Gen. Soleimani, during which officials promised revenge.

Mr. Soleimani’s burial finally took place Wednesday after a stampede that killed at least 59 people postponed it by a day.

Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, said the U.S. had tried but failed to portray Gen. Soleimani as a terrorist.

“The U.S. plans in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon were neutralized thanks to the assistance and activities of Soleimani,” he said.

Write to Alex Leary at alex.leary@wsj.com, Nancy A. Youssef at nancy.youssef@wsj.com and Sune Engel Rasmussen at sune.rasmussen@wsj.com

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