WASHINGTON – Addressing the situation in the Middle-East a day after Iran struck at U.S. bases in Iraq in retaliation for the assasination of top Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani, Donald Trump confirmed there had been no American casualties, and welcomed the fact Iran appeared to be "standing down."
Flanked by top ranking officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Defence Secretary Mark Esper, the U.S. President said Soleimani's demise was long overdue.
“We stopped him," Trump said, after blaming the Revolutionary Guard commander for the deaths of hundred of Americans, and hinting he was planning new attacks. "His hands were drenched with blood. He should have been removed long ago,” Trump said.
"All the way back to 1979, nations have tolerated Iran’s destructive behavior. Those days are over. Iran has been the leading sponsor of terrorism, they threaten the civilized world," Trump went on. "Last week, we took decisive action... We eliminated the world’s top terrorist."
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Carrots, sticks, and no nukes
The president started his speech by saying that, as long as he was in office, "Iran will never be allowed to have nuclear weapons." Sticking to the notion that the multilateral Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, signed in 2015 to limit Iran's nuclear weapon development, was a bad deal, Trump called on the other countries parties to the agreement to withdraw from it.
"Iran chanted death to America the day the Iran deal was signed. They created hell in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq. They recently killed 1500 people at the many protests that are taking place all throughout Iran," the president said.
"The defective JCPOA expires shortly anyway, and gives Iran a clear path to nuclear breakout. They must abandon their nuclear ambitions and stop their support for terrorism," Trump said, going as far as saying the previous U.S. administration effectively paid for the missiles that were fired at U.S. forces.
The president is facing a very difficult political situation at home, undergoing impeachment proceedings, in a divisive election year.
Waging carrot in one hand and stick in the other, the president said he would be immediately announcing new sanctions on Tehran, while calling on international partners to work on a new deal with Iran, one that will “allow Iran to thrive, prosper and fulfill its potential.”
While insisting that Washington was not interested in the region's resources, saying the U.S. "don’t need Middle East oil," he hinted at the fact that the two countries could find common interest: "ISIS is an enemy of Iran. We should work together on shared priorities."
"The US is ready to embrace peace with all who seek it," he added, appearing to embrace a more dovish tone.
"The fact that we have this great military... does not mean we have to use it," he said earlier in his address. "We do not want to use it. American strength, both military and economic, is the best deterrent."
The strikes were Iran's most direct assault on America since the 1979 seizing of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Iranian state TV originally said that 80 Americans had been killed, in an effort that seemed mostly directed at a domestic audience.
The president credited the fact that no American or Iraqi lives were lost to an early warning system that "worked very well."
Earlier reports said Tehran had deliberately missed its targets, and given advance warning of the strikes to the Iraqi government and foreign military forces, according to Western sources.
Netanyahu: Israel 'stands completely' beside Trump
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyhahu on Wednesday warned that Israel would strike back hard against anyone who attacked it, as he reiterated his support for the U.S.
"Whoever tries to attack us will be dealt the strongest blow," Netanyahu said while speaking at a conference in Jerusalem
He said that Israel "stands completely" beside Trump's decision, saying that the U.S. president should be congratulated for acting "swiftly, boldly and resolutely."
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called the missile strike on the U.S. bases in Iraq a “slap in the face” of the Americans, adding that military retaliation is not sufficient. “The corrupt presence of the U.S. in the region should come to end,” he said.
Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said the bases targeted were al-Asad air base and another facility in Erbil, Iraq.
“As we evaluate the situation and our response, we will take all necessary measures to protect and defend U.S. personnel, partners, and allies in the region,” Hoffman said.
Ain al-Asad air base was first used by American forces after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, and later saw American troops stationed there amid the fight against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. It houses about 1,500 U.S. and coalition forces.
Hours earlier on Tuesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the United States should anticipate a response from Iran for the killing of Soleimani, commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, a unit of the Revolutionary Guards.
Reuters and AP contributed background to this report