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After missile strikes on Iraqi bases, U.S. and Iran both appear to de-escalate

President Trump says Iran is “standing down” after firing missiles at Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops -- but causing no casualties. But Iran says its goal is to see U.S. forces leave the Middle East. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Karim Sadjadpour joins Nick Schifrin, Yamiche Alcindor and Judy Woodruff to discuss the latest developments.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    President Trump says that Iran is standing down, after firing missiles at U.S. troops in Iraq, but causing no casualties. And, for now, at least, no more U.S. military action is expected.

    Foreign affairs correspondent Nick Schifrin begins our coverage.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    With every military service chief standing at the ready, the commander in chief today announced the U.S. would respond to Iran's attacks without the military.

  • President Donald Trump:

    As we continue to evaluate options in response to Iranian aggression, the United States will impose additional punishing economic sanctions on the Iranian regime.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In one way, last night's attacks were an escalation: ballistic missiles fired from inside Iran at U.S. forces for the first time in decades.

    But senior U.S. officials tell "PBS NewsHour" they believe Iran calibrated the strikes on two bases in Iraq to avoid casualties.

    And Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted that Iran took and concluded proportionate measures, suggesting Iran wanted to de-escalate.

  • President Donald Trump:

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

  • Nick Schifrin:

    President Trump reiterated his own decision to de-escalate by saying he could work with Iran.

  • President Donald Trump:

    The destruction of ISIS is good for Iran, and we should work together on this and other shared priorities. We must all work together toward making a deal with Iran that makes the world a safer and more peaceful place.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Iran called the missile strikes a response to this U.S. drone strike that killed Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iran's network of regional proxies and a general so popular, hundreds of thousands attended his funeral.

    His assassination was one of the U.S.' most aggressive moves at Iran ever. But senior U.S. officials told "PBS NewsHour" they interpreted Iran's response as minimal retaliation. And, today, President Trump emphasized a message of restraint.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Our missiles are big, powerful, accurate, lethal, and fast. Under construction are many hypersonic missiles. The fact that we have this great military and equipment, however, does not mean we have to use it. We do not want to use it. American strength, both military and economic, is the best deterrent.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Senior Iranian officials warned, the military wasn't their only tool, and called their ambitions long-term.

  • Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei:

  • Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (through translator):

    These military actions are not enough. What is important is that the corrupt presence of America in this region comes to an end.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Iranian President Hassan Rouhani:

  • President Hassan Rouhani (through translator):

    The revenge for that is to force America out of this region. The real revenge and the ultimate response by regional nations is when America is expelled from this region and its hand of aggression is cut off forever.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    At any one point, there are between 60,000 and 80,000 service members across the Middle East and Afghanistan; 5,000 of them are in Iraq training Iraqi forces and fighting ISIS.

    Already, a majority of the Iraqi Parliament urged the government to expel U.S. troops, and Iraq's caretaker prime minister suggested U.S. troops leave. It's unclear if or when the Iraqi government will enforce that. But on the streets of Baghdad today, popular opinion is anti-U.S. and anti-Iran.

  • Hamed Al-Shamari (through translator):

    We demand the Iranian government and the United States provide material and moral compensation to the Iraqi people for every missile that falls and every martyr or wounded person.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On Capitol Hill, the administration's top national security officials briefed Congress behind closed doors. Democrats said the claim Soleimani represented a new imminent threat was unconvincing.

  • Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.:

    To the extent that they provided facts, in my judgment, they didn't support any claim of an imminent threat.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Two Republicans skeptical of the use of military force agreed, and promised to support a Democratic effort to block President Trump from waging war with Iran.

  • Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah:

    Probably the worst briefing I have seen, at least on a military issue, in the nine years I have served in the United States Senate.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But most Republicans argued the president was justified.

  • Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho:

    It would have been negligent, it would have reckless, and it would have been an intentional disregard for the safety of Americans for the president not to act and not to take out Soleimani.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Despite that debate, today, both President Trump and Iran decided now was the time to de-escalate.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And for a deeper look now at all angles of this story, I'm joined by Karim Sadjadpour. He's an Iran expert at the Carnegie Institute for International Peace. It's a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. Foreign affairs correspondent Nick Schifrin, and White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor joins us from Pennsylvania Avenue.

    Thank you all for being here. Nick, thank you for being with us after that report.

    So, to you first, Yamiche.

    Walk us through the president's thinking here. You have these missile strikes by Iran last night on U.S. interests, and then you have the president today talking peace.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The president decided to pursue de-escalation and talk about peace, instead of military action against Iran, after hours and hours of careful thinking through this with his top national security advisers.

    I was told that the president gathered for hours in the Situation Room, which is a secure room in the White House, where a lot of these issues are often discussed. And he had a range of options, including military action. And he decided to do de-escalation because he — quote — "felt relieved," I was told by a White House aide. He was relieved that there were no Americans killed by the strikes last night, and he was relieved that American equipment was able to detect those missiles early on, and was able to — and people were able to go and cover and be safe.

    And, as a result, President Trump decided to say, you know what, what I want to do is sanctions. And the White House is looking at sanctions as a way to financially and economically respond to Iran.

    There are some Democratic lawmakers who told me today that they see that still as retaliation on the United States' part, but the White House and President Trump are essentially saying, this is what we wanted to do, because we wanted to pursue peace and we didn't want this to get any worse and we didn't want this to escalate any further.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And so, Nick, you have been talking to folks in the national security, the intelligence community.

    How — what's their assessment of these strikes?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, they're echoing what Yamiche is saying, that the president gave a clear message of de-escalation.

    And when you talk to senior U.S. officials and the intelligence community there is an assessment in Washington today that Iran did not want any casualties. They calibrated, as we reported, this strike so that there were no casualties.

    And the secretary of defense, Mark Esper, talked about the type of damage that has been on these bases. And there are now actually some satellite photos that we have about this damage, and it shows what happened before the strike on the left and after the strike.

    He says that it actually wasn't that significant damage. The targets were a taxiway, a helicopter, tents, parking lot. The idea was that they did not target these bases in a way that would kill a lot of U.S. troops, although, Judy, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley just talked to reporters at the Pentagon.

    He said that there was an intent for structural damage and intent to kill, that the reason nobody died wasn't Iran's choice, but what Yamiche was talking about, those early warning systems and the steps they took to try and avoid casualties.

    But that's the chairman disagreeing a little bit with other senior administration officials.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So interesting.

    Now, Karim, what are you — what's your understanding now of the Iranian leaders, how they see all of this after the president's remarks this morning?

  • Karim Sadjadpour:

    Well, I think Iranian leaders view Donald Trump with a mix of mistrust, contempt and fear, fear at his impulsiveness and erraticness.

    And I think last night was just an opening salvo for Iran. Last night was really maximum drama, minimum impact. I don't think they're going to necessarily continue in that vein.

    And I think Iran is highly motivated to try to make Donald Trump a one-term president, just as they feel they made Jimmy Carter a one-term president with the 1979 hostage crisis.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, we're being told that — and we heard from the president that Iran appears to be standing down. You're saying what?

  • Karim Sadjadpour:

    I think that this is going to be a sustained response from Iran over the course of many months.

    One of the talking points you're now hearing from all Iranian officials is, they want all American troops out of the Middle East. I can imagine a scenario whereby, six months from now, when Americans are no longer paying attention, Iran detains a group of American sailors in the Persian Gulf.

    In the past, they have always released these sailors after a couple days, but they say, we will only release them if America releases all troops from — removes all troops from the region.

    That's going to put Donald Trump in an incredible bind just ahead of the general election. And I think, given how unprecedented the attack was on Qasem Soleimani, we have to think outside the box about Iranian responses.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, you're saying, we may be too quick to believe that this is — that the hostilities are completely over.

  • Karim Sadjadpour:

    I think we're just beginning this. It has not concluded.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, finally, back to you, Yamiche.

    Obviously, we're in the middle of an election season, a presidential election season, which Karim just referenced. What is the sense from the folks you're talking to about how any of this is playing out politically?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, the president's actions in Iran and his speech today have really become a political fault line here in Washington and on the campaign trail.

    So, first, you have the president, through his reelection bid, through the Trump campaign, now running ads saying that he should be reelected because he killed that Iranian general. He's running ads that hopefully we're showing people now on Facebook and on social media making the case that he should be reelected as commander in chief because of that.

    I want to also add to the fact that the president did make a misleading statement today about a Democrat. He made the case that Iran was able to fund this strike that they made last night through money that was given to them by the previous administration, the Obama administration.

    That's not entirely accurate. Judy, instead, actually, the Iran nuclear deal was about unfreezing some assets that Iran already had. This was not just Barack Obama writing a check to Iran, even though there was some money given to that.

    The other thing to note is that Democrats and Republicans still seem very split along party lines about the way that they're seeing the killing of this general. You have Democrats largely skeptical, telling me and White House producer Meredith Lee that they really aren't buying the administration's — their assessment of whether or not there was an immediate threat.

    And, largely, Republicans are backing the president on this, except for, as Nick noted, Mike Lee, who said, not only that this was one of the worst briefings that he had ever attended by top U.S. national security officials, but he also said that he was insulted, because, at one point during the briefing, national security officials said that lawmakers should not be debating whether or not the president should be doing more military intervention.

    And he said that he took that as an insult, because, essentially, senators should be able to talk about what the president's going to be doing militarily.

    So, you have even members of the president's own party questioning whether or not they're being seen as an equal branch of government. But, largely, all of this is still surrounded by politics. So we're going to have to continue to closely watch how this plays out in Washington and on the campaign trail.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That's right. And we saw a little of Senator Lee with those comments just a few minutes ago.

    All right, Yamiche Alcindor at the White House, Nick Schifrin here in the studio with me, along with Karim Sadjadpour.

    Thank you very much.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thank you.

  • Karim Sadjadpour:

    Thanks.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thank you.

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