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Trump is stepping away from the brink of war with Iran after a missile attack, but the roots of their dispute dangerously persist

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After Iran fired missiles at US and coalition forces in Iraq early on Wednesday, it opened the door to deescalating tensions and avoiding a wider war.

President Donald Trump on Wednesday signaled that he's prepared to walk through that door, and take an off-ramp away from a direct conflict.

The fact that there were no US casualties in Wednesday's incident made this route easier for Trump.

“The American people should be extremely grateful and happy. No Americans were harmed… We suffered no casualties, all of our soldiers are safe… Our great American forces are prepared for anything,” Trump said.

The president added: “Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned.”

Iran had made clear it sought to deescalate not long after the missile attack, with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeting that Iran “took & concluded proportionate measures in self-defense” and does “not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression.”

But none of this means that the US and Iran are at peace or that their historic confrontation is over. They've been adversaries for decades, and these tensions have brought them to the brink of conflict since May 2019.

Iran's economy is being battered under US sanctions and it has sought confrontations to try to compel the US to ease them, experts have said. It's also announced it is leaving the nuclear deal, which makes it possible for Iran to develop nuclear weapons; experts believe this process would likely take at least a year. Trump, for his part, has made clear he's willing to do whatever is necessary to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power.

What's more, Iran also has deep ties to terrorists and militias across the region, and has sometimes taken years to retaliate and in ways that Iran's leaders could deny.

'It's not over'

In many ways, this is simply a tactical retreat for Iran, and many Iran watchers warn it could resume its typical practice of attacking the US and its allies in more covert ways and with proxy forces in the region.

As Brett McGurk, who served as special envoy on the global coalition to defeat ISIS under both the Obama and Trump administrations, put it on Wednesday morning: “It's not over. Iran will now return to cutouts and proxies.”

McGurk added that the main goal here for Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is “regime survival” and “consolidation inside Iran.”

In other words, Iran could not sit back and do nothing after Trump ordered a strike that killed its top general, Qassem Soleimani, last week out of concern the regime would look weak to its citizens. But it also needed to limit its response enough to not risk provoking a US reaction that could lead to regime change, given Iran is outmatched by the US in military power.

Along these lines, a Pentagon official told CNN that Iran seemingly chose “deliberate targets” to achieve “minimum damage, maximum warning/effect.”

Iran will also not be satisfied until it sees the US “leave Iraq entirely to consolidate its hold there,” McGurk said, which the supreme leader alluded to in comments on Wednesday during a televised speech in the holy city of Qom.

“They were slapped last night, but such military actions are not enough,” Iran's supreme leader said. “The corruptive presence of the U.S. in the West Asian region must be stopped.”

He added: “The US has caused wars, division, sedition, destruction, and the demolition of infrastructures in this region. Of course, they do this everywhere in the world. This region won't accept the US presence. Governments elected by nations won't accept the presence of the US.”

The consequences of the past week, brought on by Soleimani's assassination, have also not been eliminated: Iran has withdrawn from the 2015 nuclear deal, Iraqis are enraged at the US and calling for its troops to be expelled from the country, and the US is increasingly isolated on the global stage.

Meanwhile, the US has also not gone soft on Iran, either. Trump said he's adding to the sanctions that are crippling its economy, and the US has built-up its presence in the region, which Iran already viewed as a threat.

Experts on the region have widely pointed to the sanctions, part of a “maximum pressure” campaign from the Trump administration, as the catalyst for Iran-linked chaos in the region over the past year or so — including attacks on oil tankers and Saudi oil fields.

“As long as I'm president of the United States, Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon,” Trump said in his short address Wednesday. Trump added that the US “will immediately impose additional punishing economic sanctions on the Iranian regime” following the missile attack, which he said will “remain until Iran changes its behavior.”

As he's done in the past, Trump also said he wants to work toward a new nuclear deal with Iran. His efforts in this regard have so far been unsuccessful, particularly as key US allies are still unhappy with Trump for withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear pact.

Iran and the US have seemingly stepped away from the brink of war, but the road to peace is still elusive.

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