President Trump stepped back from the brink of war with Iran on Wednesday, announcing he’ll impose “punishing” new economic sanctions on Tehran after the Iranian military launched more than a dozen missiles against military bases in Iraq that resulted in no U.S. casualties.
With governments and financial markets around the world hanging on his words, Mr. Trump emphasized in a live televised address from the White House that no Americans had been harmed in the attacks and that the damage was minimal. The president did not threaten further military force, but said the U.S. would “continue to evaluate options in response to Iranian aggression.”
“Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world,” the president said, flanked by his top national security advisers and military brass.
Despite the apparent easing of tensions, anxious House Democrats scheduled a vote for Thursday intended to stop Mr. Trump from taking any military action against Iran without congressional approval. They said the administration failed in closed-door briefings with lawmakers Wednesday to justify the targeted killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani last week, which led to Tehran’s retaliation.
“Members of Congress have serious, urgent concerns about the administration’s decision to engage in hostilities against Iran and about its lack of strategy moving forward,” Mrs. Pelosi said in a statement. “Our concerns were not addressed by the president’s insufficient War Powers Act notification and by the administration’s briefing.”
Rep. Gerry Connolly, Virginia Democrat, called the presentation “sophomoric and utterly unconvincing.”
“I left the room more troubled than when I went in,” he tweeted.
Some Republican lawmakers also expressed dissatisfaction with administration officials’ answers about what would justify the need for further military force against Iran.
“They were asked repeatedly: What, if anything, would trigger the need for the administration to come back to Congress for a declaration of war, or an authorization for the use of military force,” Sen. Mike Lee, Utah Republican, told reporters. “At one point, I believe one of the briefers said something along the lines of ‘I’m sure we could think of something.’ But they struggled to identify anything.”
Tehran also appeared to be uninterested in escalating an armed conflict, six days after the U.S. killed Soleimani with an airstrike in Iraq. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said Iran had “concluded proportionate measures in self-defense” by launching the missile attack Tuesday night on the Ain Assad air base in western Iraq and a second base housing U.S. and allied forces in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Irbil.
Mr. Trump said the U.S. military avoided casualties by outsmarting the Iranians.
“Our great American forces are prepared for anything,” the president said. “No American or Iraqi lives were lost because of the precautions taken, the dispersal of forces, and an early warning system that worked very well. I salute the incredible skill and courage of America’s men and women in uniform.”
U.S. officials said the timing of the attack was not a surprise, due to good intelligence.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, said Iran’s goal is to drive U.S. forces out of the Middle East.
“Last night, they were given one slap,” he said Wednesday in a speech broadcast on state TV. “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.”
Mr. Trump’s comments were noticeably less hostile toward Iran than a few days ago, when he warned that the U.S. would target Iranian cultural sites if Tehran retaliated for the death of Soleimani.
U.S. stock markets posted healthy gains Wednesday after his speech; Republicans in Congress praised the president’s restraint while some Democrats expressed grudging relief.
“As a superpower, we have the capacity to exercise restraint and to respond at a time and place of our choosing if need be,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said on the Senate floor. “I believe the president wants to avoid conflict or needless loss of life, but is rightly prepared to protect American lives and interests. And I hope Iran’s leaders do not miscalculate by questioning our collective will and launching further attacks.”
The president, who campaigned in 2016 on getting out of “endless wars” in the Middle East, vowed to impose even tougher sanctions on Iran “immediately.”
“These powerful sanctions will remain until Iran changes its behavior,” the president said.
But neither the White House nor the Treasury Department would say what other new sanctions are planned.
Mr. Trump, who withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement, blames former President Barack Obama’s administration for much of Iran’s aggression. He repeated Wednesday his criticisms of Mr. Obama for entering into the deal and easing sanctions, plus providing Iran with a cash payment of about $1.8 billion for lost assets.
“Instead of saying ‘thank you’ to the United States, they chanted ‘death to America,’” Mr. Trump said. “Then Iran went on a terror spree, funded by the money from the deal, and created hell in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The missiles fired [Tuesday] night at us and our allies were paid for with the funds made available by the last administration.”
Mr. Trump’s characterization drew an angry response from Susan Rice, a former Obama administration national security adviser.
“This is another series of despicable lies by President Trump,” she said on MSNBC. “The fact that three years after taking office he remains obsessed with President Obama shows President Trump’s extreme weakness and insecurity.”
Mr. Trump urged countries that were part of the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal to back out of it and work toward a new agreement that would indefinitely bar the Iranians from building nuclear weapons. Iran has announced it longer considers itself bound by the agreement and will exceed the deal’s limitations on nuclear fuel enrichment.
“As long as I am president of the United States, Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon,” Mr. Trump declared. “Iran must abandon its nuclear ambitions and end its support for terrorism. The time has come for the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia, and China to recognize this reality. They must now break away from the remnants of the Iran deal — or JCPOA — and we must all work together toward making a deal with Iran that makes the world a safer and more peaceful place.”
The president said Soleimani was a “ruthless terrorist” who was “planning new attacks on American targets.”
“He fueled bloody civil wars all across the region,” Mr. Trump said. “He viciously wounded and murdered thousands of U.S. troops, including the planting of roadside bombs that maim and dismember their victims.
Soleimani directed the recent attacks on U.S. personnel in Iraq that badly wounded four service members and killed one American, and he orchestrated the violent assault on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. In recent days, he was planning new attacks on American targets, but we stopped him.”
He added, “By removing Soleimani, we have sent a powerful message to terrorists: If you value your own life, you will not threaten the lives of our people.”
Mr. Trump said the world has failed to hold Iran’s Islamist regime accountable for its hostile actions dating back to its 1979 seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran and the holding of 52 American diplomats as hostages for more than a year.
“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,” Mr. Trump said. “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.”
Democrats in Congress expressed concern that Mr. Trump’s actions were still risking war with Iran.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, Illinois Democrat and an Iraq war veteran, said Mr. Trump also has risked provoking Iraq “to kick us out of the very democracy we have helped to build.”
“We need to exert our constitutional control over this out-of-control toddler-in chief, and vote to prevent him from entangling us in another major war without legal authorization from Congress,” she said on the Senate floor Wednesday. “We need less chest-thumping and more diplomacy.”
She said Mr. Trump is “a five-deferment draft dodger” who does understand the sacrifice of U.S. soldiers.
Sen. Chris Murphy, Connecticut Democrat and a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said he is “glad the road to war may be narrowing,” but accused the president of damaging U.S. national security.
“The Trump administration has enabled Tehran to restart their nuclear program, turned the people of Iraq and Iran against us, brought about a halt to our counter-ISIS mission, and prompted Iraq to vote to eject all our troops from the country,” Mr. Murphy said. ” In short, we are weaker, and Iran is stronger, because of Trump’s actions.”
But Senate Armed Services Chairman James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, said the president has bolstered U.S. security by holding Iran accountable for its aggression.
“Iran now knows that President Trump means what he says, and that it cannot afford an all-out war with the United States, which is why it chose not to escalate further,” Mr. Inhofe said. “Whether Iran seizes this opportunity to negotiate or not, by killing Soleimani, President Trump has put us in the strongest position we’ve had with Iran in decades.”
He said the U.S. should now “work with our partners in the region and in Europe on a more comprehensive approach towards de-escalation – one that does not repeat the mistakes of the Obama administration, and which focuses on ending all aspects of Iran’s malign behavior, including their use of ballistic missiles, terrorism, and their nuclear program, through diplomacy.”
⦁ Lauren Meier and Seth McLaughlin contributed to this report.