By Jeff Mason, Ahmed Aboulenein and Parisa Hafezi
WASHINGTON/BAGHDAD/DUBAI, Jan 8 (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Wednesday abandoned days of angry rhetoric and suggested Iran was “standing down” after it launched missiles at U.S. forces in Iraq overnight, as both sides looked to defuse a crisis over the U.S. killing of an Iranian general
In an address from the White House, Trump said the United States did not necessarily have to respond militarily to the Iranian attacks on military bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq overnight.
He said no Americans were harmed in the strikes.
“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,” he said.
“Our great American forces are prepared for anything. Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world,” he said.
The missile attacks were in retaliation for the killing by the United States last week of Iranian general Qassim Soleimani which raised concern about a wider war in the Middle East.
Trump stopped short of making any direct threat of military action but said the United States “will immediately impose additional punishing economic sanctions on the Iranian regime” in response to what he called “Iranian aggression.”
He offered no specifics.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, addressing a gathering of Iranians chanting “Death to America,” said the missile attacks were a “slap on the face” of the United States and said U.S. troops should leave the region.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had said the strikes “concluded” Tehran’s response to the killing of Soleimani, who had been responsible for building up Iran‘s network of proxy armies across the Middle East. He was buried in his hometown Kerman on Monday after days of national mourning.
“We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression,” he wrote on Twitter.
Influential Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who casts himself as a nationalist rejecting both U.S. and Iranian interference in Iraq, also said the crisis Iraq was experiencing was over and he urged militia groups not to carry out attacks.
“I call on the Iraqi factions to be deliberate, patient, and not to start military actions, and to shut down the extremist voices of some rogue elements until all political, parliamentary and international methods have been exhausted,” said Sadr, whom Washington has long regarded as an Iranian ally.
Trump’s address contrasted with his recent harsh rhetoric. The Republican, who was impeached in December and faces an election in November, had vowed to respond “disproportionately” if Iran retaliated strongly against Soleimani’s killing.
Trump on Saturday said the United States had targeted 52 Iranian sites, including ones important to the country’s culture. He was criticized for that even by U.S. political allies and later backtracked, saying the United States would obey international law on the issue.
On Wednesday, Trump again vowed he would not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon and urged world powers to quit a 2015 nuclear accord with Iran that Washington abandoned in 2018 and work for a new deal, an issue at the heart of rising tensions between Washington and Tehran. Iran has rejected new talks.
There was no immediate reaction from Iranian officials to Trump’s comments. The semi-official Fars news agency described the U.S. president’s remarks as a “big retreat from threats.”
Trump’s reaction soon after Wednesday’s attacks was to say on Twitter that “All is well!” and that Washington was assessing damage.
That tweet and the comment by Iran‘s foreign minister soothed some concerns about a wider war and calmed jittery financial markets. U.S. stock prices hit record highs, while world oil prices, after an early spike, fell about four percent. nL4N29D0B2]
U.S. and European government sources said they believed Iran had deliberately sought to avoid U.S. military casualties in its missile strikes to prevent an escalation.
But an Iranian army spokesman had denied “foreign media reports” suggesting there was some kind of coordination between Iran and the United States before the attack to evacuate bases.
Iranian state television said Iran had fired 15 ballistic missiles from its territory at U.S. targets in its neighbour Iraq early on Wednesday. The Pentagon said al-Asad air base and another facility in Erbil in Iraq were struck.
Iranian television reported an official in the supreme leader’s office as saying the attacks were the “weakest” of several retaliation scenarios. It quoted another source saying Iran had lined up 100 other potential targets.
Analysts said Iran wanted to avoid any conventional military conflict with superior U.S. forces.
After the Iranian missile attack, state television showed footage of the Soleimani burial, with hundreds of people chanting “God is greatest” when the strikes were announced over loudspeakers. “His revenge was taken and now he can rest in peace,” Iranian television said.
Friction between Iran and the United States rose after Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal, approved by his predecessor Barack Obama, and reimposed sanctions on Tehran to slash its oil exports.
In his speech on Wednesday, Khamenei ruled out resuming talks with Washington on the pact.
Hours after the Iranian missile strike, a Ukrainian airliner crashed shortly after take-off from Tehran on Wednesday, killing all 176 people on board.
A Canadian security source said the initial assessment of Western intelligence agencies is that the plane was not brought down by a missile.
(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein in Baghdad, Parisa Hafezi and Babak Dehghanpisheh in Dubai, Phil Stewart, Steve Holland, Jeff Mason, Matt Spetalnick and Eric Beech in Washington, Writing by Alistair Bell and Arshad Mohammed Editing by William Maclean and Howard Goller)