Trump Hails Iran 'Standing Down,' Vows New Sanctions

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Standing in the Grand Foyer at the White House and flanked by military officials in olive drab, President Trump addressed the nation the day after Iran unleashed more than a dozen short-range ballistic missiles on U.S. forces in Iraq. That ordinance didn’t cause any loss of life, and the president was triumphant.

“I'm pleased to inform you, the American people should be extremely grateful and happy,” he said. “No Americans were harmed in last night's attack by the Iranian regime. We suffered no casualties.”

The address was the latest in an escalation between the two nations that began with the death of an American contractor and culminated in a fiery drone strike that killed Iran’s top security and intelligence commander, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Keeping score from the White House on Wednesday, Trump declared, “Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world.”

Loath to escalate tensions in the Middle East and long opposed to the “endless” wars there, Trump chose a telling setting for his remarks. He did not deliver them from behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, a venue often used for solemn occasions like declarations of war. The president opted, instead, for a more ceremonial backdrop, attempting to ratchet down tensions and offering a warning.

“As long as I am president of the United States,” he vowed at the beginning of his comments, “Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon.”

He later cited the lethality of American military might, rhetorically flexing the strength of those forces bolstered by his administration’s increased spending. But he added, “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.”

While the president did not announce new missions for those armed forces against Iran, he did promise “additional punishing economic sanctions” against Tehran. The White House has continued a “maximum pressure” campaign against that regime as it seeks to extend its influence in the region.

 “For far too long — all the way back to 1979, to be exact — nations have tolerated Iran’s destructive and destabilizing behavior in the Middle East and beyond,” Trump said in his White House remarks.  “Those days are over.  Iran has been the leading sponsor of terrorism, and their pursuit of nuclear weapons threatens the civilized world.  We will never let that happen.”

More recent history and the actions of the last administration were singled out, though not by name. Trump laid blame for increased Iranian aggression at the feet of former President Obama and blamed him for a brand of diplomacy that emboldened the regime.

“Iran’s hostilities substantially increased after the foolish Iran nuclear deal was signed in 2013, and they were given $150 billion, not to mention $1.8 billion in cash. Instead of saying ‘thank you’ to the United States, they chanted ‘death to America.’ In fact, they chanted ‘death to America’ the day the agreement was signed.”

Trump withdrew from that nuclear deal in May of 2018, and architects of the agreement  bristled Wednesday at his renewed criticism.

“Iran didn’t fire a single rocket at US interests in Iraq during the Iran Deal. Just look at what Iran has done since Trump pulled out of that Deal. Trump is lying relentlessly, and he has made things much more dangerous,” tweeted Ben Rhodes, Obama’s former deputy national security adviser.

Quibbling between the past and current administrations will apparently continue in this country. So, too, will a war of words and images between Trump and his Iranian counterparts.

After the death of Soleimani, the president tweeted an image of the American flag. After Iranian missiles were launched in retaliation, leaders of that country played copycat by sharing Iran’s tri-colored flag on Twitter. Mixed messaging then ensued, characteristic of that regime.

Although Trump said Iran appears to be standing down, it is nearly impossible to read its government’s statements at face value, given the split personality between its civilian leaders and military officials, which includes the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, who are loyal to Ayatollah Khamenei.

Iran’s foreign minister on Wednesday clearly signaled that his nation had made its point and is now looking to step back from the brink of a full-blown war. After the firing of ballistic missiles at Iraqi military bases that housed U.S troops, Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted that Iran had “concluded” its attacks on American forces and “did not seek escalation or war.”

Khamenei sent nearly the opposite message, saying the U.S. had been humiliated after the missile attack and that the goal now is to end the “corrupting” U.S. presence in the region.

 “We slapped them in the face last night,” he said in a speech broadcast live on state television. “Military operations do not suffice. It is important to end the U.S. corrupting presence in the region,” he added in an apparent reference to other expected attacks from Iran-backed proxy militias against U.S. forces.

Other top government officials also continued to vow harsh revenge for the killing of Soleimani. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, whom the Obama administration hailed during Iranian nuclear deal negotiations as a new type of leader more open to the West, said Wednesday that while the United States may have “cut off the arm” of Iran’s military, America’s “leg” in the region would be cut off in response, according to Iran’s Fars news agency.

Trump was unfazed by those threats, calling on NATO allies to increase pressure on Iran and noting that the United States has become energy independent. “We are now the number one producer of oil and natural gas anywhere in the world,” he said as crude oil prices surged around the globe. “We are independent, and we do not need Middle East oil.”

Although aggressive and defiant, the president was careful to signal that America’s quarrel was with the government, not the people, of Iran. “We want you to have a future and a great future — one that you deserve, one of prosperity at home, and harmony with the nations of the world,” Trump said before concluding. “The United States is ready to embrace peace with all who seek it.”

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics' White House/national political correspondent.

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