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Trump hits the pause button with Iran | Editorial
There is an opportunity for both countries to step back from the brink of war.
President Donald Trump addresses the nation from the White House on the ballistic missile strike that Iran launched against Iraqi air bases housing U.S. troops, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020, in Washington, as Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, and Vice President Mike Pence, and others look on. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump addresses the nation from the White House on the ballistic missile strike that Iran launched against Iraqi air bases housing U.S. troops, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020, in Washington, as Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, and Vice President Mike Pence, and others look on. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci) [ EVAN VUCCI | AP ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Jan. 8, 2020

The dangerous standoff between the United States and Iran passed a critical test Wednesday, with neither side escalating military action in the wake of America’s killing of a top Iranian general and Iran’s reprisal missile strikes on American bases in Iraq. It is unlikely Iran has satisfied its desire for vengeance, and President Donald Trump sent conflicting messages Wednesday about the path forward. Still, the lull in hostilities provides an opportunity to step back from the brink of a ruinous conflict and for the global community to play a more helpful role in easing tensions.

The obvious question about the Trump administration’s decision to kill Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike last week was when, where and how hard the Iranian government would respond. Iran’s firing early Wednesday of dozens of missiles at two bases in Iraq housing American troops provided at least part of the answer. The Pentagon said no American or Iraqi personnel were harmed, and damage to the bases was light. The attack was clearly timed and designed to limit casualties. Iraq also said it received a warning from Iran beforehand, which it shared with U.S. authorities.

For now, a break in hostilities between two impulsive governments is good enough. Previous U.S. presidents, Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Barack Obama, recognized Soleimani as a terrorist commander responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American troops over the years. But they also recognized that killing a heroic figure in Iran would trigger the very anti-American fervor shaking the region today.

Trump offered no details in his brief address Wednesday to substantiate his administration’s claim that it killed Soleimani in a preemptive strike to prevent an imminent attack on American targets. It also is unclear whether the administration has any strategy beyond containing the flash point of the moment. Trump urged the Europeans, Russia and China to join his wrongheaded decision in abandoning the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran - something they have reasonably refused to do. He also called for NATO to be much more involved in the Middle East, even though the president has denigrated the alliance, and even as NATO and several member nations began withdrawing troops from Iraq because of the Soleimani blowback.

While both sides have exhaled, the events of the past week have not made the United States more secure, Iran more stable, the Mideast more manageable or the world a safer place. The U.S.-led coalition in Iraq and Syria has suspended its campaign against the Islamic State. Iraqi lawmakers voted to expel the 5,000 American troops from their country. The Pentagon has directed 4,500 additional U.S. troops to the region to essentially defend the roughly 50,000 already there. Trump on Wednesday offered a vague diplomatic opening to Iran even as he announced new sanctions would be imposed on the country.

Both countries wisely have refrained from a military escalation for now. How long that holds is anybody’s guess. The reprieve is welcome, even surprising. But it’s no substitute for coherent, long-range negotiations that should involve a coalition of U.S. allies. Relying on unilateral military strikes and escalating tough rhetoric as an apprehensive world nervously watches in silence is not the best approach.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news