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U.S. strategy on Iran is still unclear

President Donald Trump addresses the nation from the

President Donald Trump addresses the nation from the White House on Wednesday on the ballistic missile strike that Iran launched against Iraqi air bases housing U.S. troops. Credit: AP/Alex Brandon

President Donald Trump's disconcerting speech Wednesday about the Iran crisis left the nation with one overarching question:

Now what?

He made statements, some false. He proposed steps, some curious. He professed hopes, some welcome. He offered a clenched fist and a warm embrace, sometimes in the same paragraph.

But he did not enunciate a long-term plan or specific strategy for resolving our conflict with Iran.

Stitch his words together with equally confounding ones spoken by Iran's leaders and you have an embroidery depicting two nations stepping back from this moment's brink of war, which will be welcome if it lasts. It also shows two nations seemingly ready to resume their respective postures of belligerence, which has proved to be dangerous.

Trump, who often is his own yin and yang, also praised Iran's apparent stand-down while announcing he would impose tough new sanctions. He told the Iranian people he wishes them a future of peace and prosperity while touting the overwhelming strength of the U.S. military, praised our "big" and "lethal" missiles while noting they don't have to be used, and stressed his willingness to work toward peace.

The rough guidelines of a peace process he offered also were puzzlers. Trump said he wants NATO, which he has repeatedly pilloried, to become more involved in the process, but in what capacity — as a mediator in negotiations or as a conflict monitor which could allow the United States to reduce its forces? Trump asked Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia — signatories to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran from which Trump unwisely withdrew, contributing to the latest hostilities with Iran — to work toward a new, tougher deal. But why would they when they have been trying to preserve the first one? He also invited Iran to help fight the Islamic State while saying that the terror group has been defeated 100 percent.

Trump made misstatements about the 2015 deal, incorrectly blamed former President Barack Obama for some of Iran's actions, and obnoxiously had a cadre of generals standing behind him as he addressed the nation, something his predecessors never did and for good reason. The military should be kept out of politics. But Trump had no monopoly on mixed messages or misstatements. While Iran's foreign minister said the country had "concluded proportionate measures" of retaliation for the U.S. killing of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the missile strike was not enough and that America must be removed from the region. And Iran state media reported that more than 80 Americans were killed in Iran's missile strikes Tuesday, though the U.S. suffered no casualties.

The provocations might not be over given the two rockets that landed in Baghdad Wednesday night. But it is encouraging that Iran apparently warned Iraq and the United States that the missiles were coming, that they might have been deliberately programmed to miss hitting U.S. personnel, and that Trump seems to have decided not to respond. That's a better foundation on which to build than mere rhetoric. It might even lead to a more positive step, like, say, removing sanctions in exchange for Iran recommitting to a nuclear deal.

The nation waits, and watches. 

— The editorial board