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Trump says Iran standing down after missile strikes

What happened: US President Donald Trump said yesterday that Iran “appears to be standing down” after firing 15 missiles at Iraqi military bases housing US forces. Trump confirmed that no American or Iraqi personnel were killed and that the bases only suffered minimal damage.

  • Trump defended the killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, which drew the Iranian missile attack, calling him “the world’s top terrorist…[whose] hands were drenched in American and Iranian blood.”
  • Trump spent much of the speech criticising the Obama Administration, especially for signing the JCPOA nuclear deal. Trump claimed that Iran had gone on a “killing spree” after the agreement was signed, and that the missiles the previous day had been funded by money received as part of the deal.
  • In practical terms, Trump called for the UK, Germany, France, Russia, and China to break away from the JCPOA nuclear deal, called for renewed negotiations on a better deal with Iran “that makes the world a better and more peaceful place,” as well as for NATO to become “more involved in the Middle East Process”. He provided no details on how these policy measures will be implemented.
  • The demand from the President came just hours after Boris Johnson, speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions, said: “It’s our view that the JCPOA remains the best way of preventing nuclear proliferation in Iran, the best way of encouraging the Iranians not to develop a nuclear weapon and we think that after this crisis has abated that that way forward will remain. It is a shell that is currently being voided, but it remains a shell into which we can put substance again.”
  • Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab held talks with his US counterpart Mike Pompeo in Washington yesterday and made clear that the UK is “looking very hard” at the future of the Iran nuclear deal. “We are absolutely committed, as our American and European partners are, to avoiding Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon, and we’ve obviously been committed to the JCPOA. But we’ve reached a point where non-compliance has been so acute in the most recent steps taken by Iran, that obviously we’re going to be looking very hard at what should happen next,” Raab said.
  • Trump spoke on the phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last night. According to the White House the two discussed “critical bilateral and regional affairs.”

Context: Aside from the relative de-escalation of the immediate crisis, Trump emphasised two key long-term issues: Iran’s nuclear program and Middle East energy.

  • Trump began his speech by saying: “As long as I am President of the United States, Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon.”
  • Tensions between Iran and the US had already been escalating in recent months, even before the Soleimani killing, due to the Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and subsequent “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran.
  • Trump also highlighted American’s energy independence. “We are now the number-one producer of oil and natural gas anywhere in the world. We are independent, and we do not need Middle East oil.”
  • The statement could raise doubts about Washington’s commitment to the Middle East in general, and key regional allies (and energy producers) like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Bahrain in particular.

Looking ahead: The general sentiment of Trump’s speech is that the US and Iran have de-escalated successfully – indeed, some analysts claimed Iran’s missile attack was designed to cause damage but avoid fatalities. It remains to be seen, however, whether the missile strikes on Wednesday were the sum total of Iran’s response or simply the opening gambit. The Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs) in Iraq, who also lost their commander in the US drone strike, yesterday vowed to begin their retaliation against US forces in the country.