After an overnight Iranian missile attack on an Iraqi base housing US troops, US President Donald Trump made a statement Wednesday regarding tensions between the US and Iran. Tensions have escalated in recent days after the US assassination of top Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani.
"No Americans were harmed in last night's attack by the Iranian regime. We suffered no casualties," Trump said.
The president reiterated the threat Soleimani posed, calling him "the world's top terrorist," and touted America's military might, but indicated a desire for deescalation.
“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.
Trump called on other nations to come together to strike a new deal to manage Iran's nuclear ambitions, but blamed the Obama administration for the current tension with Iran. He also announced new economic sanctions on Iran as the US continues to "evaluate options in response to Iranian aggression."
Ivo Daalder served as US ambassador to NATO for four years during the Obama administration and is now president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He spoke with The World's Marco Werman about the president's remarks and the future of the US-Iran relationship.
Marco Werman: Ambassador Daalder, what's your gut response to President Trump's remarks earlier today?
Ivo Daalder: Well, I think we came to the brink of war and the president wisely decided to step down and away from that brink, step down the escalation ladder and decide that the escalation had gone on far enough. The danger of getting into a war became too great. And the right thing to do now was to take the temperature down a little bit.
Were there specific things that Trump said that really stood out for you?
Yeah, I think he said that he took the Iranian action as a way to stand down from the escalation. And he said that was a good thing. I think that was the right interpretation. I think the Iranians decided that they had to respond in some form militarily to the killing of Gen. Soleimani and did so by making clear that they had to respond from Iran with a missile attack that in the end did damage to materials, but not to people. And that was important.
Timeline: The history of US-Iran relations
Could you argue that Iran had already done its own kind of standing down by targeting a base, but with no fatalities?
Yeah, I think Iran was sending a message that it had to respond given the provocation, but it wanted to do so in a way that made it more likely that the United States would not take further military action and would step down from a confrontation itself. Neither the United States nor Iran wants to go to war. They have different objectives in what they want in the region with regard to nuclear weapons and nuclear capabilities, but they don't want to have those differences lead to war. And I think both sides have now decided the time is is up for escalation, that the time for a new approach is here.
In terms of what Trump's overall strategy is with Iran, were you able to draw any conclusions today?
Well, here's the problem — because the overall strategy that he has pursued since walking away from the nuclear deal in May of 2018 has failed: It led us to the brink of war because rather than Iran giving into our maximum pressure campaign, they decided to engage in what Iran calls maximum resistance. And as a result, the two fundamental objectives that we have set ourselves — a modification in Iran's behavior with regard to the region and a further constraint on its nuclear program — both of those objectives are further away today than they were in May 2018. So, rather than continuing down the failed path, this is the time, it seems to me, when the president, having seen and stood at the brink of war, ought to reassess his entire strategy and take a new approach.
A lot of people think Iran's long game is getting the US out of Iraq completely and formally making Iraq a total proxy of Iran. Is that what you believe?
That's what the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said today. It's what President Hassan Rouhani tweeted today, that clearly they want not only the United States out of Iraq, they want the United States out of the region. That is not in our interest. It is in our interest to continue to have good relations and a continued presence — economic, political, military — in the region. And therefore, we have different objectives. The question is, are we going to achieve that through war? Are we going to achieve it through diplomacy, an effective strategy? I think the answer ought to be we go for a more effective strategy than we've pursued up to date, which has only led us to the brink of war.
And as a former diplomat, where is the room for diplomacy between the US and Iran at this point?
Well, the first thing to do is to reengage with our allies in Europe and with China and Russia, all of whom were members and signed up to the nuclear agreement. We have found ourselves now isolated, once again, alone in the world when it comes to both Iran writ large and the nuclear question specifically. And rather than, as the president did today, calling on other countries to walk away from the nuclear deal, we need to reengage with those parties' energy with Iran to get back to a negotiation that allows for more stringent limitations on the Iranians' nuclear program, a better and more coordinated strategy with our allies to deal with Iranian misbehavior in the region and other steps. But the first step for us is, rather than telling the Europeans that they should do something they're not going to do — which is get out of this agreement — is to start working with the Europeans to find a common strategy towards the region, in general, and towards Iran, in particular.
But the very first thing out of President Trump's mouth today, even before he said hello to the audience, was Iran will never have a nuclear bomb, basically, as long as he's alive.
Well, and I hope that he's right about that. That is a strategy that his two predecessors have also been pursuing.
But if that's his position, why would he even go back to the negotiating table?
Well, because the way to get Iran without nuclear weapons is one of two ways: You're either prevented from doing so militarily — and we just saw how dangerous that road is — or you do it through diplomacy. So, the time we have decided that military action and further escalation is not the right way to go, the only option we have left is diplomacy. And that diplomacy starts not just with Tehran, but more importantly, with our allies in Europe, with Russia and with China.
So, if you had the ear of President Trump, what would you tell him?
I would tell him that just as President John F. Kennedy, when he stood at the brink of nuclear holocaust over the Cuban missile crisis and then reassessed his strategy towards Russia, which led to the kind of arms control agreements that renegotiated in the '60s and the '70s and the '80s and thereafter, that he needs to reassess the strategy of maximum pressure. The goal of getting Iran to accept a world in which it does not have nuclear weapons is best achieved through diplomacy with our allies in the way that we have sought to do in two administrations before him.
And if you had the ear of the Iranian leadership, what would you tell them?
I would tell them that if they want to make sure that their people have a better economic future, they need to engage with the United States and with European allies, Russia and China, to find a new agreement that puts stringent limitations on its nuclear program while allowing it to engage economically with the rest of the world.
Would you also tell them to kind of lay off their proxy wars across the region?
Oh, absolutely. The kind of behavior that Iran has been engaged in over the past decades is unacceptable. And we need to have a common strategy to oppose it. But the way to do that is not just militarily. It's also diplomatically with the countries in the region and those who have the greatest interest in stability in the region.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Reuters contributed to this report.