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U.S. and Iran step back, but underlying tensions remain acute

A large display screen seen in Tokyo on Jan. 8, 2020, shows President Trump and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. (Koji Sasahara/AP)

The United States and Iran, while appearing Wednesday to step back from the verge of war, offered little indication there was any give in the irreconcilable demands that brought them to the brink in the first place.

On the morning after Tuesday night’s Iranian missile attack on U.S. military forces in Iraq — what Iran said was “revenge” for Friday’s U.S. drone strike that killed Quds Force leader Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani — both countries indicated that they would stand down.

In an address to the nation, President Trump said that the United States was “ready to embrace peace” and that the two countries should work together on shared priorities.

But any thought that he would use the occasion to provide an incentive in that direction was quashed when Trump announced “additional punishing sanctions on the Iranian regime,” penalties that he said “will remain until Iran changes its behavior.”

No details of new sanctions were immediately provided. Escalating U.S. sanctions have progressively crippled the Iranian economy by sharply curtailing oil exports and trade with other nations.

In his own televised address, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said with apparent satisfaction that Iran had delivered a slap to America’s face, though the missile strikes caused little damage and no casualties. But there would be no peace, he said, until the United States changed its own behavior, including by completely withdrawing its military forces from the region.

“The U.S. enmity toward Iran is not temporary. It’s inherent,” Khamenei said, according to Iranian media reports. “It is a gross mistake to think if we took a step back and compromised, the United States would stop.”

U.S. officials knew Iranian missiles were coming hours in advance

Those who may have expected that the possibility of an actual shooting war might push U.S.-Iranian hostility toward an off-ramp had reason to be disappointed.

“The good news is that both sides have added that element of ‘we don’t want war; we want to avoid escalating further,’ ” said Ariane Tabatabai, an analyst with the Rand Corporation.

But the reality, she said, is “not just that neither side is changing its demands, it’s also that neither side is really changing the way it’s been behaving.”

There is little expectation that Iran will stop its support for proxy groups that have pushed its interests in the region, often with lethal force and terrorism. Soleimani’s direction of those groups, in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen — as well as in Iraq, where the Quds Force supplied sophisticated roadside bombs that killed hundreds of U.S. troops during the American occupation of that country — was the U.S. justification for targeting him.

Most recently, the administration has charged, Soleimani directed a late-December attack by Iranian-allied Iraqi militia forces against U.S. personnel in Iraq that left an American contractor dead and orchestrated a subsequent assault on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

“In recent days, he was planning new attacks on American targets,” Trump said Wednesday of Soleimani, as senior administration officials traveled to Capitol Hill to brief lawmakers on the intelligence backing up that claim.

Democratic lawmakers, as well as a handful of Republicans, remained skeptical and charged that the briefers provided little beyond vague intimations of threats. Democrats have called for legislative action to rein in the president, worried that Trump may again move toward escalation.

But as the administration contemplates where its Iran policy goes from here, others continued to applaud the Soleimani strike as long-overdue evidence that Trump was willing to back up his threats against Tehran.

“Before last week, the real danger was that American military deterrence vis-a-vis Iran was in free fall,” said John Hannah, who served as Vice President Richard B. Cheney’s national security adviser and is now a senior counselor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which advocates a tough line against Iran.

“Any red lines” set by Trump “were increasingly in question in the minds of the Iranian leadership,” Hannah said.

Trump came to office focused on Iran, with little give in his position even as he moved to establish closer relations with U.S. adversaries such as North Korea, Russia and China. Just weeks into his administration, his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, called a news conference to put Iran “on notice” that the United States would no longer put up with what it saw as the appeasement practiced by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.

In particular, Trump railed against the nuclear deal that Obama, along with major European powers, and Russia and China, had negotiated with Iran.

But for his first year in office, to the dismay of hard-liners who saw his instincts stymied by moderates within his Cabinet, the president seemed to be all talk.

One such moment came in May 2017, as Trump was preparing to leave for Saudi Arabia on his first overseas trip as president. When Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen fired a ballistic missile at Riyadh, the president pressed for options from the Pentagon, including striking Iranian missile factories or hitting Iranian speedboats that routinely harassed U.S. naval vessels, and a plan to kill Soleimani, according to two White House officials at that time.

When the Pentagon, under the leadership of then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, demurred, the options were not pursued, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Events leading to the current crisis were not set in motion until May 2018, when Trump finally took action to withdraw the United States from the Iran nuclear deal. John Bolton, his new national security adviser and a longtime advocate of a hard line against Iran, announced the deployment of additional air and naval forces to the Persian Gulf “to send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force.”

The then-new secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, quickly announced 12 demands Iran would have to meet before the United States would relent, including harsh restrictions within a new nuclear deal, the end of all support for proxy groups, and curbing its development of ballistic missiles.

Within months, the administration had begun a campaign of “maximum pressure” against Iran, including tough economic sanctions.

Early last year, when Iran and its proxies began provocative attacks against U.S. interests and allies, the administration again promised a tough response. But those promises appeared toothless when Trump ordered, and then pulled back from, planned U.S. strikes against Iranian targets after the shoot-down of a U.S. surveillance drone in June.

Through the fall, as Iranian taunts continued with attacks on Persian Gulf shipping and Saudi oil facilities, Trump himself was said to be worried that he appeared weak as he headed toward his reelection. Bolton’s promise of “unrelenting force,” Hannah recalled, “was almost meaningless.”

When an Iranian-backed Iraqi militia group attacked U.S. forces last month, killing an American contractor — followed by an assault by demonstrators on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad — Trump was presented with a new opportunity, and Soleimani was targeted.

Each country has now indicated that the ball is in the other’s court.

Greg Jaffe contributed to this report.

U.S. conflict with Iran: What you need to read

Here’s what you need to know to understand what this moment means in U.S.-Iran relations.

What happened: President Trump ordered a drone strike near the Baghdad airport, killing Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful military commander and leader of its special-operations forces abroad.

Who was Soleimani: As the leader of the Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, Soleimani was key in supporting and coordinating with Iran’s allies across the region, especially in Iraq. Soleimani’s influence was imprinted on various Shiite militias that fought U.S. troops.

How we got here: Tensions had been escalating between Iran and the United States since Trump pulled out of an Obama-era nuclear deal, and they spiked shortly before the airstrike. The strikes that killed Soleimani were carried out after the death of a U.S. contractor in a rocket attack against a military base in Kirkuk, Iraq, that the United States blamed on Kataib Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militia.

What happens next: Iran responded to Soleimani’s death by launching missile strikes at two bases hosting U.S. forces in Iraq. No casualties were reported. In an address to the nation, Trump announced that new sanctions will be imposed on Tehran.

Ask a question: What do you want to know about the strike and its aftermath? Submit a question or read previous Q&As with Post reporters.