At the Edge of a War, U.S. and Iran Appear to Step Back

Soldiers at Fort Bragg in North Carolina board a bus in preparation for deployment to the Middle East on Sunday, Jan. 4, 2020. Initial assessments indicate that no Americans were killed in Iranian strikes on bases in Iraq, so President Donald Trump may not feel the pressure to punch back. (Travis Dove/The New York Times)

Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt

c.2020 The New York Times Company


WASHINGTON — After storming to the edge of a cliff this week, early indications suggest that the United States and Iran apparently have decided they do not want to jump, at least not yet.

With initial battle assessments indicating that no Americans were killed in Iranian strikes on two military bases in Iraq on Tuesday, President Donald Trump may not feel the punch-back-or-lose-face pressure he would have confronted with high troop casualties.

Iran’s foreign minister announced early Wednesday that the nation had “concluded proportionate measures” in its retaliation for the killing of the country’s most revered military general in a U.S. drone strike last week.

But with Iran’s leadership demanding anew that the United States must leave the region, it is expected that attacks by Tehran’s proxy forces will continue, and Iran’s leadership can, at a time of its choosing, decide whether to launch additional, asymmetrical strikes, especially cyberattacks, against Western interests. And that could bring both countries back to the edge of the cliff again.

There was visible relief among some officials at the Pentagon that the highway to a larger war on which the administration appeared to be speeding may have provided an off-ramp.

For all of the public chest-thumping in the last week, both sides took measures to de-escalate.

Before Tuesday night, Iran made clear that it would launch retaliatory attacks, and that they would come from the official Iranian military, and not proxy groups. The United States, for its part, was monitoring Iranian communications and had plenty of time to prepare to protect U.S. troops in Iraq.

By the end of a long night Tuesday, there was a collective exhaling in the Trump administration’s national security apparatus, and officials indicated they believed things had been contained, for now.

One administration official said the hope now is for de-escalation.

“So far, so good,” Trump said in his tweet.

Although Iranian officials said their military response had ended, U.S. troops in the region continued to fortify their positions in case of another attack, one military officer in Baghdad said.

A war with Iran would look nothing like any conflict this generation has witnessed, national security and military experts say. It would be felt aboard oil tankers making their way through the Strait of Hormuz and at gas stations in Kansas, in hotels and public plazas in Paris and in the mosques in the United Arab Emirates.

As budget-shattering and far-reaching as the war with Iraq has been, Iran would be far worse.

Any assumption that the Iranian people would welcome an American toppling of their government does not take into account the deep pride that many Iranians have in their national identity, an outpouring that has surfaced in the stampede in Iran during Tuesday’s funeral procession of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian military commander killed in a U.S. airstrike last week, experts said. More than 50 people died as millions of people flooded the streets for his funeral procession.

“Iranians are nationalistic and would view this as a war being imposed upon them by someone who they see as deliberately picking a fight with them,” said Vali R. Nasr, an Iranian American and former senior adviser at the State Department. “And they would support hitting back.”

Early Wednesday, Iran said it has finished the official hitting-back phase for now.

“Iran took & concluded proportionate measures in self-defense under Article 51 of UN Charter targeting base from which cowardly armed attack against our citizens & senior officials were launched,” Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Mohammad Zarif, said in a tweet early Wednesday. “We do not seek escalation of war but will defend ourselves against any aggression.”