WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump backed away Wednesday from potential war with Iran, indicating that he would not respond militarily to the launch of more than a dozen ballistic missiles at bases housing American troops, as the United States and Iran blamed each other for provoking the most direct conflict between the two adversaries since Iran seized American diplomats in 1979.
The war-like stance that took hold last week after Trump approved the targeted killing of a senior Iranian military commander he accused of plotting to kill Americans appeared to ease by mutual agreement, following days of chest-thumping in both Washington and Tehran and what Iran called its rightful response.
No one was killed in Iran's attack on two military bases in Iraq, according to the administration, and Trump dismissed the damage to U.S. facilities as "minimal." Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called the attack a "slap in the face" of the United States and insufficient to end the U.S. presence in the region but did not threaten any specific further military action.
“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 at the White House on Wednesday morning. “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.”
Despite the apparent easing of tensions, there is continuing uncertainty over Trump's policy toward Tehran going forward and how he would respond to any future military provocations.
The president wrapped an ultimatum against Iran developing a nuclear bomb in an offer for new negotiations, but it's unclear what would bring Iran back to the table after Trump scrapped the deal it struck with the Obama administration and other world powers in 2015. He said the new sanctions would be imposed, but the Iranian economy has already been hit hard by the United States. And Trump issued only a general warning against Iranian action that would trigger a U.S. military response after previously threatening severe consequences.
"To the people and leaders 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. "The United States is ready to embrace peace with all who seek it."
U.S. officials said Wednesday they knew Iranian missiles were coming hours in advance, after warnings from intelligence sources and communications from Iraq. Iraq’s acting prime minister has said he was informed of the attack ahead of time. “We knew, and the Iraqis told us, that this was coming many hours in advance,” said a senior U.S. administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the communications.
Iraqi leaders said they remain concerned about the possibility of more conflict on their soil with President Barham Salih describing the intensifying U.S.-Iranian showdown as a "dangerous" development.
In a statement early Wednesday, Salih condemned Iran's overnight rocket attacks "against Iraqi military locations" and said he rejects attempts to turn Iraq into a proxy battlefield. Iraq alone will decide whether to expel U.S. forces after a 17-year military presence in the country, Salih said.
Despite acknowledging that it notified the Iraqi government that it was "repositioning" troops, the Pentagon says it has no immediate plans to close out its mission countering Islamic State militants. Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said earlier this week that a letter notifying the Iraqis incorrectly implied withdrawal and "was a draft, it was a mistake, it was unsigned, it should not have been released."
Iran sought to continue to sound an aggressive tone Wednesday while signaling it did not want the military back and forth to continue.
"Iran took & concluded proportionate measures in self-defense," Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif wrote on Twitter shortly after the attacks, which came in the early hours of Wednesday in Iraq. "We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression."
The often voluble diplomat remained mum on Twitter the rest of the day, adding to the sense that the immediate tit for tat was over.
Republicans and Democrats in Congress remained divided along partisan lines over Trump's actions.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., announced hours after the president's remarks that the House will vote Thursday to limit his war options on Iran.
"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," Pelosi said in a statement.
Congressional Republicans quickly praised the speech and Trump’s actions as commander in chief, with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., calling it “a home run.”
In mostly measured tones, the president whose focus on Iran has been a constant from the start of his political career issued an invitation for new international diplomacy over Iran's nuclear program and an apparent reassurance to Iran's leaders that the United States does not seek their overthrow.
In criticizing the 2015 Iran nuclear deal negotiated under President Barack Obama, Trump also asserted without evidence that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons and that "the missiles fired last night were paid for by the funds made available by the last administration" under the accord that eased economic sanctions against Iran in exchange for Iran curtailing what it claimed was a peaceful nuclear energy program.
Trump said Maj. Gen Qasem Soleimani was "responsible for some of the absolute worst atrocities" in the Middle East and should have been "terminated" long ago. He repeated his charge that Soleimani was planning new attacks on Americans but did not provide evidence.
Lawmakers left a closed-door briefing Wednesday with some of the Trump administration's most senior national security officials deeply divided over whether the administration was authorized to carry out the strike on Soleimani in Baghdad last week.
Democrats said the briefing did not make a convincing case that any looming threat against the United States was averted when Soleimani was killed.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., said that he did not leave the briefing persuaded of an "imminent threat" and that his committee would invite Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for hearings next week.
Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, said she wasn't certain officials who came to Capitol Hill even understood why Soleimani was killed. "I don't know that they know the rationale," she said. "Certainly they didn't tell me what it was."
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., said officials walked lawmakers through the history of Soleimani's threats against the United States and its allies, and said "the fact that he was plotting further attacks to kill Americans made it clear that it was time to take him out."
"And obviously, you can't go into full detail about the intelligence of those future attacks," Scalise said. "But how much is enough?"
But one Republican senator, Mike Lee of Utah, called the administration's classified national security briefing "probably the worst briefing I've seen at least on a military issue in the nine years I've served in the United States Senate."
Lee said the message from the administration officials was that lawmakers need to be "good little boys and girls and run along and not debate this in public" - an instruction he described as "insane."
"Drive-by notification or after-the-fact, lame briefings like the one we just received aren't adequate," Lee said.
Trump on Tuesday evening announced the unusually formal White House address in his preferred informal way: on Twitter. "All is well!" he wrote, adding that assessments of damage and casualties were then ongoing. "So far, so good!"
Trump was flanked by top national security aides and senior military leaders in a show of unity. Among them was Pompeo, the administration's leading hawk on Iran.
But the next steps Trump listed - sanctions and diplomacy - represent a stay-the-course strategy. He also urged broader NATO participation in the Middle East, though it was not clear what he meant.
The approach may reassure allies alarmed that a superpower and an oil-rich regional power were headed for war.
Trump spoke Wednesday with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who had pointedly refused to endorse the killing of Soleimani, and with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
Trump also spoke Wednesday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the White House announced. Netanyahu considers Iran an existential threat and his fierce opposition to the Iran nuclear deal helped forge a close bond with Trump. But Netanyahu was also alarmed that Iran could target Israel after Soleimani's killing.
"As we continue to evaluate options in response to Iranian aggression, the United States will immediately impose additional punishing economic sanctions on the Iranian regime," Trump said. "These powerful sanctions will remain until Iran changes its behavior."
The Trump administration reimposed tough sanctions on Iran after Trump pulled out of the international nuclear accord. Trump urged Britain and the other four signatories to the 2015 deal to declare the accord dead and work with him to forge a new one.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose country shares borders with Iran and Iraq, said Wednesday that "no one has the right to throw the whole region, especially Iraq, into a new ring of fire for the sake of their own interests."
The killing of Soleimani, a charismatic warrior who held cultlike appeal for many in Iran, marked the single greatest military provocation between the United States and Iran in decades. Iran's response in turn represented the largest direct show of military force against the United States since the inauguration of the anti-American government in 1979.
The United States blames Soleimani for the deaths of hundreds of U.S. forces in Iraq, including those killed by unique projectiles made in Iran and dispensed to pro-Iran militias in Iraq under Soleimani's direction.
The United States and allies also blamed him for sowing terror across the Middle East. But his targeted killing brought allegations that Trump had violated international law and Iraqi sovereignty.
Iran's promised response was both larger than some had predicted and apparently calibrated to be more symbolic than deadly. Iran used sophisticated ballistic missiles instead of crude rockets or indirect attacks, but the weapons mostly missed important targets.
Tensions had built last year, with Iran's downing of a U.S. drone, and attacks on oil tankers and a Saudi oil facility that the United States blames on Tehran.
At the same time, Trump issued an open invitation to Iranian leaders to talk, but they spurned the offer and the issue appears moot at least until after the November presidential election in the United States.