Column: Trump's speech on Iran delivered to three audiences

AP photo/Alex BrandonPresident Donald Trump walks to Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House, Thursday, in Washington. He was leaving for a campaign rally in Ohio.

President Donald Trump’s speech on Iran will not go down in memory as eloquent or inspiring, but it gave the world what it needed most: an opportunity for de-escalation. The U.S. president was unquestionably speaking to many audiences, and most should be more pleased than upset by what they heard.

For Americans, and the president’s supporters in particular, they heard a leader who remains resolute on Iran and unyielding in his objectives to have Iran end its nuclear weapons ambitions and its use of terrorism to destabilize the region and threaten American interests.

For Iranians, although Trump hardly offered an olive branch, the absence of threats of military force should be the key takeaway; it may be the first time the announcement of more sanctions would be welcome in Tehran. Moreover, in several parts of the speech, Trump referenced a desire to see a peaceful and prosperous Iran — without any obvious suggestion of regime change being the prerequisite.

Europeans may see the speech in mixed terms. They are likely to bristle at the president’s call for the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council to abandon the nuclear deal. And they will be quite surprised by Trump’s announcement that he will ask NATO to do more in the Middle East — particularly after the United States gave its European allies no warning about the strike on Gen. Qasem Soleimani, which sharply changed the threat environment for the hundreds of British, German, Dutch, and others serving there.

But Europeans should look beyond those two major points.

First, the call to abandon the Iran nuclear deal is not as dramatic as it sounds. Given America’s withdrawal and Iran’s latest violations, it is hard to imagine that deal could be revived without a significant renegotiation of it. Instead, the more noteworthy sentences are the ones that came next: “We must all work together toward making a deal with Iran that makes the world a safer and more peaceful place. We must also make a deal that allows Iran to thrive and prosper, and take advantage of its enormous untapped potential.”

Europeans could and should take this as an invitation to do exactly what seven former European ministerial level officials called for in a statement on Jan. 8: To “urgently position European states as active mediators to de-escalate the situation.”

Second, the request to NATO should not be rejected out of hand. In fact, it may be the most useful suggestion contained in the speech overall.

The actions of the last week have precipitated a real crisis between the United States and Iraq — one in which the Iraqi parliament has passed a non-binding resolution calling for the eviction of all foreign forces in Iraq, including the 5,200 American soldiers currently operating there. It is not at all clear that this momentum can be completely reversed.

However, incorporating more Americans into the existing NATO training mission in Iraq could be a way to meet intense Iraqi political pressure for change in the status quo without removing all Americans from Iraqi soil.

Iraqis are likely to be the most disappointed of all the constituencies watching President Trump’s speech. The president lost an opportunity to calm the spike in U.S.-Iraq tensions that have followed the Soleimani killing.

Beyond being thankful that no Iraqi lives were lost in the Iranian attacks on U.S. bases last night, the president did not even mention Iraq. He could have instead communicated a series of important messages that may have allowed Baghdad and Washington to launch a slow, deliberative and analytical process to re-evaluate their relationship — rather than the emotional Iraqi calls for eviction and the emotional calls of the president for sanctions on Iraq.

There is still time to make the comments Iraqis want and need to hear. And a further, more practical gesture could also reinforce the de-escalatory intention behind the speech: approving the visa sought (and apparently denied) by Iranian Foreign Minister Javid Zarif to attend UN Security Council meetings in New York this week.

It will take more to dampen the crisis that has gripped the world for the last week. But there are enough positives in the president’s speech to build upon.

Meghan L. O’Sullivan is a Bloomberg columnist. She is a professor of international affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School and is on the board of directors of the Council on Foreign Relations. She served on the National Security Council from 2004 to 2007.

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