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Iranian leaders give mixed signals on demands following missile attacks on bases housing US forces

Iran’s president and foreign minister are putting out mixed messages over whether Tehran is looking to escalate tensions with the U.S. following Iranian strikes on bases in Iraq housing U.S. forces, the first direct strike by Iran on U.S. military assets.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani tweeted Wednesday morning that Tehran seeks the removal of all U.S. forces in the region in response for the targeted killing of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force who was killed in a U.S. drone strike last week, setting off the confrontation between the two powers.

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It’s unclear if Tehran will carry out additional strikes against Americans and U.S. military bases or if Rouhani is laying out terms of a cease-fire deal.

Yet Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, had seemingly offered an offramp to tensions, writing on Twitter after the strike Tuesday evening that the Iranian attack “concluded proportionate measures” against the U.S. in retaliation for Soleimani’s killing.

“We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression,” Zarif wrote on Twitter.

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Iranian leaders frequently take to Twitter in English to communicate with the international community despite the medium being banned in their country.

President Trump sought to downplay the dramatic escalation of tensions Tuesday evening, writing on Twitter, “All is well!” He also said he will address the nation Wednesday morning over the next steps in the Middle East.

Iran on Tuesday night launched over a dozen ballistic missiles on two Iraqi military bases hosting U.S. troops, al-Asad air base in western Iraq and military sites near Erbil, in the autonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq.

No casualties were initially reported among U.S. or Iraqi personnel.

American forces in Iraq were on high alert for a retaliatory Iranian strike following the death of Soleimani, whose cult-like status in life has been transformed into a saint-like martyr in death among supporters of the Islamic Republic.

The Trump administration has said the decision to take Soleimani off the battlefield was made to prevent an “imminent” attack on Americans, yet critics say the strike was retaliatory and launched without a strategy to deal with the wide-ranging consequences.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, when pressed, has referred to Soleimani’s responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of American troops during the Iraq War and for last month’s killing of an American civilian contractor in Iraq and an organized attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad by Iranian-backed Shi’a militias.

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Congressional lawmakers are expected to be briefed Wednesday on the intelligence surrounding the killing of Soleimani and the administration’s next steps on Iraq.

U.S. forces returned to Iraq in 2014 at the request of the government in Baghdad to lead the fight against the ISIS, which had taken over large parts of the country, massacred thousands of Iraqis and used its bases in Raqqa and Mosul to launch attacks in the West.

Yet the U.S. presence has had the unstated mission of reining in Iran’s ambitions in the region to establish a corridor of power from Iraq, through Syria to Lebanon, to support its proxy forces and to export the Islamic revolution.

Last October, Iraqis rose up in protest against Tehran’s influence over Baghdad and forced the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who now leads a caretaker government until new elections can be held.

Yet the confrontation between the U.S. and Iran on Iraqi soil threatens to undermine gains by Iraqis wanting to push Iran out of Iraq. On Sunday, Shi’a members of the Iraqi parliament — who support Tehran — voted on a nonbinding resolution calling for the removal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

Sunni and Kurdish parliament members abstained from the vote in protest, but refused to record their opposition to the measure.

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