US President Donald Trump appeared to back away from a rapidly escalating military conflict with Iran on Wednesday after Tehran fired missiles at US forces in Iraq.
Speaking from the White House, Trump said no US personnel were harmed in the barrage of ballistic missiles, adding that the “American people should be extremely grateful and happy.”
“Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world,” Trump said while flanked by his vice president, secretary of defence and top military brass. “The US is ready to embrace peace with all who seek it.”
The threat of war between the US and Iran escalated on Wednesday after Iran fired 22 ballistic missiles at two bases hosting US forces in Iraq, followed by barrages of vitriol from both sides.
Both sides confirmed the attack, which Tehran said was revenge for last week’s US assassination of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, which the US, in turn, said was in retaliation for a range of Iranian offences in the region.
Prior to the Iranian missile attack, Trump had vowed to strike dozens of Iranian targets if Tehran retaliated against US assets. However, on Wednesday he did not mention a military strike.
“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,” he said. “American strength, both military and economic, is the best deterrent.”
While Trump backed away from military conflict he said the US would immediately impose “additional punishing economic sanctions” on Tehran.
“These powerful sanctions will remain until Iran changes its behaviour,” he added, citing the Iranian nuclear programme.
Since Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 and started a “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions against Iran, tensions have steadily escalated. Tehran announced it will drop commitments to the deal following Soleimani’s killing.
Ahead of Trump’s speech, there were already signs that both sides wanted to de-escalate the situation, which was on the brink of sparking another Middle East war.
It appears the attack the Iraqi bases was not designed to kill US forces. Iraq’s caretaker Prime Minister Abdel-Mahdi said Iran notified Baghdad of the overnight attack.
Following the attack, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted that Iran “took and concluded proportionate measures in self-defence,” adding that Tehran does “not seek escalation or war.”
Trump appeared nonplussed by the missile strike, tweeting on Tuesday that “all is well.”
On Wednesday, the US president also said he will ask NATO to become “much more involved in Middle East process.”
The United Nations welcomed the “step away from escalation” indicated in Trump’s remarks, a UN spokesman said.
“We welcome any indication that leaders are walking back from major confrontation and are doing whatever they can to avoid any further escalation,” Stephane Dujarric told reporters in New York.
The Iranian missiles were launched by the Revolutionary Guard Corps at around 2230 GMT from within Iran, the Pentagon said on Tuesday.
Some 5,000 US troops are stationed in Iraq, tasked with leading an international military coalition fighting the militant Islamic State group.
Iran warned the US against counter-attacks, threatening tough reactions, and told the US to withdraw its troops, in a statement from the IRGC.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei hinted at further conflict in statements after the attack.
“What we should not forget is that the US is an enemy and will remain an enemy,” he said.
“The goal should be to end the presence of the Americans in the region,” said Khamenei. “The Americans have only brought war and destruction to the region.
Iraqi officials counted 22 missiles, 17 at the airbase and five that fell in the northern city of Erbil. It reported no deaths of Iraqi troops, noting that the bases only housed coalition troops.
Several coalition partners have already reported that all of their forces escaped unharmed, including Australia, Canada, Denmark, Germany Italy, Norway, Poland and Sweden.
Out of concerns about the deteriorating situation, several air carriers announced they would avoid both Iranian and Iraqi airspace, including KLM, Lufthansa, Turkish Airlines and Air France. The US Federal Aviation Administration suspended all civilian US air traffic from Iraqi and Iranian airspace.
Qantas announced that its Perth to London flight would avoid Iranian airspace for now, favouring Afghanistan’s territory instead.
Soleimani, who was killed in a US drone strike near Baghdad airport last week, was buried early Wednesday in his home town Kerman, the Fars news agency said. The burial was delayed after several dozen mourners died in a stampede the previous day during a funeral procession in the town.