US President Donald Trump said on Wednesday (8 January) that Iran appeared ready to ‘stand down’ from further escalation with the US, stating that Iranian missile strikes on bases in Iraq had not harmed any US troops stationed there.
*This article has been updated with reactions.
He also urged NATO to increase its engagement in the Middle East.
Earlier Iranian forces had retaliated to the US killing of General Qasam Soleimani by launching more than 20 ballistic missiles at two military bases housing US troops in Iraq, raising the stakes in its conflict with Washington.
“No Americans were harmed in last night’s attack by the Iranian regime. We suffered no casualties. All of our soldiers are safe and only minimal damage was sustained at our military bases,” Trump said in an address to the nation.
“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 added.
More than 5,000 US troops remain in Iraq along with other foreign forces in a coalition that has trained and backed Iraqi military in their fight against Islamic State (ISIS).
Germany, Denmark, Norway and Poland also confirmed that none of their troops in Iraq were hurt, while some NATO allies had announced partial troop withdrawals.
Flanked by Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and other military officials, Trump did, however, little to explain his reasoning for ordering the strike which took place on Friday (3 January).
Trump, who has repeatedly criticised NATO since taking office, has called on the Alliance to “get more involved in the Middle East”, but did not specify what exactly he has in mind.
Trump’s comments on NATO are likely to present another contentious issue for an already troubled Alliance, as consensus so far was to avoid such a scenario.
In 2018, the Trump administration repeatedly suggested that it push ahead with a bid to create a new security and political alliance with six Gulf Arab states, plus Egypt and Jordan, in part to counter Iran’s expansion in the region.
Back then, the plan to forge what officials in the White House and Middle East have called an “Arab NATO” of Sunni Muslim allies was seen as likely to raise tensions between the United States and Shi’ite Iran.
A White House spokesman later on Wednesday said Trump had spoken with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and “emphasized the value of NATO increasing its role in preventing conflict and preserving peace in the Middle East.”
According to a NATO read-out of the phone conversation, “they agreed that NATO could contribute more to regional stability and the fight against international terrorism” and “stay in close contact on the issue.”
NATO, together with the EU, ever since the beginning of the crisis has repeatedly called on Iran to avoid ‘further provocations’, adding that the other 28 NATO members had repeated their longstanding concerns about Iran’s destabilising activities in the Middle East.
“A new conflict would be in no one’s interest, so Iran must refrain from further violence and provocations”, Stoltenberg told reporters after a NATO emergency meeting at ambassadors’ level in Brussels on Monday (6 January), echoing previous statements by EU leaders made during the weekend.
Stoltenberg also stressed that the drone strike had been a “US decision, not a decision taken by NATO” itself, when asked about his opinion on the targeted killing of the Iranian commander.
NATO had suspended its training mission in Iraq on Saturday in fear of retaliation, after an Iraqi parliamentary resolution on Sunday had called on foreign troops to leave.
Established in Baghdad in October 2018 after three years of war against Islamic State militants, the 500 soldier-strong NATO Iraq mission is a non-combat “train-and-advise” assignment to support Iraqi security structures and institutions to fend off future insurgencies.
Trump pressures Europe on Iran deal
In his address Trump also announced Washington’s intention to impose new economic sanctions against Tehran but did not call for more military action against the Iranians.
“The United States is ready to embrace peace with all who seek it,” the US President said, but added that “Iran must abandon its nuclear ambitions and end its support for terrorism.”
“As long as I am president of the United States, Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon,” Trump said.
Trump also called on Europeans to “break away from the remnants of the Iran nuclear deal”, which he called a “foolish” deal, which the US decided to withdraw from in 2018.
“The time has come for the United Kingdom, Greece, France, Russia and China to recognize this reality. They must now break away from the remnants of the Iran deal,” Trump said.
Iran’s economy has been battered since May last year when Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from the 2015 nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
The plan was signed in 2015 by Iran, China, France, Germany, Russia, UK, US, Germany, and the EU, and imposed sanctions on Iran.
In response, the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX) was born as the brainchild of France, Germany and the UK in January 2019, and recently joined by further European countries.
It was created as a special purpose vehicle to help EU companies do business with Iran and facilitate non-USD transactions to avoid breaking US sanctions against the country.
European efforts, however, to ensure that Iran can keep trading in spite of the sanctions have had little impact.
[Edited by Benjamin Fox]