In addressing Middle East tensions, Trump calls for end to Iran nuclear deal

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump appeared to hold his fire Wednesday in America's standoff with Iran, opting instead to promise fresh economic sanctions, prod NATO allies to do more and demand an end to a "very defective" international deal that aspired to slow Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

After a nervous night that began with a barrage of Iranian missiles raining down on two Iraqi military bases where U.S. soldiers are stationed, Americans tuned in to hear just to how their famously unpredictable president might respond.

But Trump, flanked by senior members of his national security team, appeared willing to take advantage of an opening that some observers speculated might have been there by design: the fact that none of Iran's missiles — fired in retribution for last week's killing of Maj.-Gen. Qassem Soleimani — drew any American blood.

"All of our soldiers are safe and only minimal damage was sustained at our military bases," the president said in a statement from the White House.

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

Instead, Trump aimed his trademark ire at two of his favourite rhetorical targets: the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, a multilateral agreement reached in 2015 under Barack Obama that was supposed to discourage Iran's nuclear program, and NATO, a military alliance the president believes has left the U.S. with an unfair share of its burden.

"Iran must abandon its nuclear ambitions and end its support for terrorism," he said.

"The time has come for the U.K., Germany, France, Russia and China to recognize this reality; they must now break away from the remnants of the Iran deal ... and we must all work together towards making a deal with Iran that makes the world a safer and more peaceful place."

He said the "very defective" Obama-era agreement, which the Trump administration abandoned in 2018, is too short-term and too lax and gives Iran a "clear and quick path" towards developing a nuclear arsenal. "Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon," Trump said.

Iran declared after Soleimani's death that it would no longer abide by the limits on enrichment of nuclear fuel imposed by the 2015 deal — a deal the federal Liberal government in Canada has championed as an important international effort to keep the world safe from nuclear proliferation. 

Just last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Charles Michel, president of the European Council, reiterated their collective support for the agreement and its role in promoting regional stability in the Middle East.

Trump, who regularly criticizes NATO allies for what he characterizes as their failure to shoulder a fair share of the burden, also said he would ask NATO to become "much more involved" in the Middle East.

A NATO readout of Trump's call with Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg later Wednesday said the two "agreed that NATO could contribute more to regional stability and the fight against international terrorism" — something the alliance already does through its training efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Trump and Trudeau also discussed the situation in Iran and NATO's role in the Middle East during a phone call Wednesday, the prime minister told a news conference in Ottawa.

"He recognized the important role that the international community can play in supporting the move towards a more stable Iraq," Trudeau said, citing Canada's role in NATO's efforts to train local forces as part of the ongoing mission against the Islamic State group.

Canada is already one of the countries doing the most in that regard, he said, "but there are always going to be more reflections on what are the next steps to take, given the current circumstances and the path forward that partners in the region and global partners will be looking at."

Trump made no explicit demands of Canada in that regard, he added.

Gen. Jonathan Vance, Canada's chief of the defence staff, said in French that Canadian soldiers — who along with American personnel have been gradually relocating to Kuwait this week — are prepared to continue with the anti-ISIL mission if circumstances permit.

Vance acknowledged the heightened risk but noted Canadian forces are taking all the necessary security precautions.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 8, 2020.

— Follow James McCarten on Twitter @CdnPressStyle

James McCarten, The Canadian Press