President Trump’s measured restraint in his address to the nation on Wednesday was the right response to Iran’s mostly symbolic missile attack on two U.S. military bases in Iraq that harmed no one and did little serious damage. By declining to launch an answering attack and proposing ways the two nations might repair relations, Mr. Trump opened the door to a truce and a path toward peace.
Whether Iran will take this opportunity remains to be seen. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said his nation “took and concluded proportionate measures in self-defense,” adding, “We do not seek escalation or war.” But Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said: “Military action like this is not sufficient. What is important is ending the corrupting presence of America in the region.”
The Iranian leader’s remarks foreshadow an intensified political struggle by Iran-backed Iraqi militias to oust American forces from Iraq.
In an apparent answer, Mr. Trump proposed instead that Iran and the United States continue to cooperate against the remnants of the Islamic State and on other mutual interests. His remarks suggest that the cooperation would continue to include the Iraqi militias answerable to Iran that helped the United States and the Iraqi Army retake the cities and regions seized by Islamic State, before they turned against the United States and brought on the current crisis by killing and wounding Americans.
What role Iran directs those militias to play in Iraq will be a key question in coming weeks and months. If they continue to attack U.S. forces, Mr. Trump has threatened to strike targets in Iran. He should make other preparations in case they openly or covertly attack Iraqi parties and politicians who seek cooperation with the United States.
The president was adamant that he would continue to oppose Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons and called on Tehran to cease destabilizing activities in the Middle East and the production of missiles. And he called on Russia, China and Europe to join him in demanding a renegotiation of controls on Iran’s nuclear program. He has frequently called on Iran to reopen that agreement.
“The United States is ready to seek peace with all who seek it,” he declared.
That de-escalation was just what the president’s political allies were counseling. Before Mr. Trump spoke, South Carolina’s Sen. Lindsey Graham tweeted that “retaliation for the sake of retaliation is not necessary at this time” but that “What is necessary is to lay out our strategic objectives regarding Iran in a simple and firm fashion.” He later called the speech “a home run.”
The president wisely avoided making further threats of the sort that have brought merited rebukes even from his own Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. Following the air strike that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Mr. Trump tweeted that he had a list of 52 Iranian targets he would strike if Iran close to escalate its confrontation with the United States, including unspecified “cultural sites.”
The United Nations lists 24 “World Heritage Sites” in Iran, including some of the world’s most beautiful buildings, and another 50 sites from Iran’s long history might qualify for such protection. To deliberately destroy any of them would bring the United States down to the criminal level of the Islamic State and the Taliban, which were rightly denounced for their own destruction of ancient monuments.
When asked if there were such sites on the Pentagon’s target list, Mr. Esper, in an indirect but unmistakable rebuke of Mr. Trump, said attacking them would violate “the laws of armed conflict.” Good for him.
In another tweet after the Iraqi parliament voted on a nonbinding resolution that American forces must leave, Mr. Trump threatened to hit Iraq with sanctions and a bill for U.S. military bases if forced to withdraw. That was hardly the way to begin what will be a critical political effort to win the support of Iraqis.
While the president’s rhetoric since the strike on Mr. Soleimani has strayed over the top at times, his actions have been firm, prudent and deserving of our support.