US-Iran tensions: Five things to note from Trump's speech

Anthony Zurcher
North America reporter
@awzurcheron Twitter

Media caption,
'Iran appears to be standing down' - Trump delivers a statement at the White House

Last night, shortly after Iran launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles toward US forces in retribution for the US assassination of Iranian General Qassem Suleimani, Donald Trump tweeted that "all is well".

The following morning, he attempted to explain why he sees it this way.

Here are five key passages from a 10-minute speech that suggests, for the moment, a tense situation may be easing somewhat.

The exit ramp

"Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world."

The big question after last night's missile attack was whether the president would view the Iranian response as a reason to escalate the situation or, in the now popular phrase, "to look for an exit ramp".

On Tuesday morning, he chose the latter.

He heralded the lack of casualties and "minimal damage" from the Iranian strike. He praised the US military and promised "more punishing economic sanctions" - not, as some feared (and he hinted at earlier this week) a disproportionately overwhelming military response.

That Trump opted not to strike back may give the Iranians an opportunity to claim he was the one who backed down. Make no mistake, however, Trump's was a victory speech - a reassertion of American dominance in the region - and it was just getting started.

Media caption,
This footage, reportedly of the missile attack, was shown on Iranian state TV

We have emerged unscathed

"By removing Soleimani, we have sent a powerful message to terrorists: If you value your own life, you will not threaten the lives of our people."

Much of Trump's morning touted what had already been accomplished, not what was to come. He focused on establishing why Soleimani - the "world's top terrorist", he claimed - was a nefarious character who had long deserved the punishment Americans delivered.

"Soleimani's hands were drenched in both American and Iranian blood," he said, listing his support for militant armies, instigation of regional civil wars and targeting of US troops as evidence. He warned that Soleimani was planning further attacks on Americans - echoing previous, but so far unsubstantiated, US assertions that Soleimani's assassination prompted by an imminent threat to US interests.

By focusing on Soleimani's death - and the message it sent - instead of Monday night's Iranian strikes, the president was in effect saying the outcome of this recent crisis was worth the drama and unrest it may have caused. The US drew its line, took out a malign actor and emerged mostly unscathed.

But some commentators have warned against Trump gloating, because Iran's response could be ongoing.

Yet another jab at Obama

"The missiles fired last night at us and our allies were paid for with the funds made available by the last administration."

If there's been one common, uniting theme to Trump's presidency so far, it's been a concerted effort to undo the legacy of his predecessor, Barack Obama. On healthcare, the environment, the economy, immigration and - in particular - the Iran nuclear deal, Trump has turned campaign criticisms into policy action.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The funeral of an Iraqi paramilitary chief and friend of Soleimani also killed in the US drone strike

It's not particularly surprising, then, that Trump would take the opportunity of a nationally televised address to swipe again at Obama.

The Iran nuclear deal, negotiated during the Obama administration, released tens of billions of dollars of Iranian assets frozen in US banks after the 1979 Iranian revolution. There's no evidence these funds were used for Iran's missile programme - which was operational long before the multinational Iranian agreement was signed - but Trump's core contention, that the deal gave Iran political and financial breathing room to be more aggressive in the region, doesn't require receipts.

Obama's Iran deal is gone, Trump effectively told the other signatory nations in his speech, and it's time to negotiate a new deal - a Trump deal - that makes the world "a safer and more peaceful place".

I can deliver exit from Middle East

"Today, I am going to ask NATO to become much more involved in the Middle East process."

Trump's message to other nations didn't end with negotiating a new Iran deal, either. He wants Nato, the military alliance he has frequently belittled, to step up, too.

It's been a contradiction of Trump's foreign policy that while he frequently speaks of disentangling the US from foreign commitments, he often takes actions that seem to risk miring the US in a wider Middle East conflict.

Now, after ordering a strike against a senior Iranian military official that could have prompted a direct clash with Iranian forces, the president is again talking of scaling back.

The US's economy is booming and is now energy independent, he said, perhaps suggesting - or warning - that it's time for US allies to shoulder more of the Middle East burden.

Of course, Middle East instability can affect the global energy market, raising prices in the US no matter whether that oil and gas comes from North Dakota shale deposits or a Persian Gulf oil well.

A US exit from the Middle East would be neither clean nor easy.

A grand entrance with a 2020 message

"As long as I am president of the United States, Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon."

The president started his speech with a teaser, as it's called in the news business. Before even saying good morning, he started with a guarantee - a show of strength and a promise of security.

There were a lot of theatrical touches to the president's Tuesday morning appearance. He stood before a phalanx of stern-looking, award draped military leaders, flanked by senior members of his administration.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Trump surrounded by generals

The imagery of his entry into the room, his figure silhouetted against a blaze of light from an open window, bordered on the messianic. While his delivery was muted and short-of-breath - and the speech itself was a hodgepodge - pictures still carry punch in American politics.

There's no telling whether this recent Iranian crisis will have any long-term political benefit for the president - and even less certainty of whether it will be a positive development for the security of the US and the world as a whole.

But expect the image of Donald Trump as commander in chief, surrounded by the trappings of power and authority, taking credit for the deaths of Soleimani's and Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to be a common theme in his upcoming re-election campaign.