WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump used a televised address on Iran Wednesday to warn Tehran of further provocations after it launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles on two bases in Iraq where American troops are stationed.
But he also noted there were no American or Iraqi casualties as a result of the attacks, which Iranian officials said were in response to last week’s U.S. drone strike that killed Iran’s top military commander Gen. Qasem Soleimani. Trump outlined what he said were the causes of the sharp escalation between the two countries and signaled he was open to dialogue. USA TODAY has fact-checked the president’s assertions here:
Hostilities began when?
What he said: Trump said that hostilities with Iran substantially increased when the U.S. joined with five other nations to sign an agreement that eased sanctions with Iran in exchange for Tehran curbing its nuclear program.
“Iran’s hostilities substantially increased after the foolish Iran nuclear deal was signed in 2013,” he said.
Context: Trump promised during his 2016 campaign to scrap the nuclear agreement with Iran, saying it was too lenient because the curbs on Tehran’s enrichment were temporary and there were insufficient prohibitions on the development of its missile program.
While Trump tied the escalation of tensions to the deal negotiated under President Barack Obama, a series of major provocations occurred after Trump withdrew the U.S. from the agreement in 2018. Those included attacks on tankers near the Strait of Hormuz last year and the downing of a U.S. drone, which Iran said had violated its airspace.
Critics of the Iran deal have said Tehran used the money it received as part of the agreement to finance terrorism in the Middle East. At the time, Obama administration officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry, acknowledged the possibility that Iran might use some of the money realized through sanctions relief to fund terrorist groups. But Tehran’s funding of militant groups was ongoing years before the deal was reached.
Trump also misstated when the Iranian nuclear agreement was signed. Although an interim deal was signed in 2013, the broad multilateral agreement – known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – was signed two years later in 2015.
Attack on bases: What we know about the assessment of damage to bases in Iraq
What happens next? Iran’s assault was the most aggressive in decades
Does Iran sponsor terrorism?
What he said: “Iran has been the leading sponsor of terrorism.”
Context: In a November 2019 report, the State Department lists four “state sponsors” of terrorism – official governments that support acts of international terrorism: North Korea, Iran, Sudan and Syria.
“Iran remains the world’s worst state sponsor of terrorism,” concluded the State Department report, which is a review of 2018 data and activities. “The regime has spent nearly one billion dollars per year to support terrorist groups that serve as its proxies and expand its malign influence across the globe. Tehran has funded international terrorist groups such as Hizballah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. It also has engaged in its own terrorist plotting around the world, particularly in Europe.”
But experts have raised questions about labeling Iran as the worst state sponsor of terrorism. And Trump has not always put Iran at No. 1 when it comes to terrorism.
In his 2011 book, Trump called Saudi Arabia “the world’s biggest funder of terrorism. Saudi Arabia funnels our petrodollars, our very own money, to fund the terrorists that seek to destroy our people.”
Indeed, terrorism experts note that in the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the United States, 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudis and the kingdom has been a source of terrorism financing for years.
“Saudi Arabia’s society was a place where al Qaeda raised money directly from individuals and through charities,” the 9/11 Commission Report states. “It was the society that produced 15 of the 19 hijackers.”
The Saudi government has taken steps since the 9/11 attacks to prevent money laundering and other crimes that enable terrorism financing, but serious gaps remain, according to a 2018 report by the Financial Action Task Force, an inter-governmental body.
What he said: After suggesting relations began fraying with Iran on Obama’s watch with the signing of the nuclear deal, Trump suggested his predecessor gave billions to Tehran.
“And they were given $150 billion, not to mention $1.8 billion in cash. Instead of saying ‘thank you’ to the United States, they chanted ‘Death to America.’”
Trump went further to claim: “The missiles fired last night at us and our allies were paid for with the funds made available by the last administration.”
Context: Trump has cited both figures in the past to make the case that the Obama administration gave Iran a gift of billions of dollars. But the money was not a gift or a payoff.
After it signed a multinational deal to restrain its nuclear development in 2015, Iran was allowed access to its own assets, which had been frozen. The U.S. Treasury or other countries did not give Iran a $150 billion gift. Iran was allowed to gain access to its own money.
As for the $1.8 billion, Iran did get a payment of roughly that amount from the U.S. Treasury. But that was to pay an old IOU, according to The Associated Press.
In the 1970s, Iran paid the U.S. $400 million for military equipment that was never delivered because the government was overthrown and diplomatic relations ruptured. After the nuclear deal, the U.S. and Iran announced they had settled the matter, with the U.S. agreeing to pay the $400 million principal along with about $1.3 billion in interest.
The $400 million was paid in cash and flown to Tehran on a cargo plane. The arrangement provided for the interest to be paid later.
Susan Rice, a national security adviser under the Obama administration, pointed out after Trump’s speech that Iran had ballistic missile technology before the deal was reached.
“Iran has had these sophisticated missiles, they’ve been developing their capacity for many many years. To say that that money funded the attack on our personnel and on our base is just the most disgraceful kind of lie, of the sort that unfortunately president trump tells every day,” she told MSNBC.
What he said: Trump has often touted the amount of money his administration is spending on the military, and he did so again during his remarks about Iran on Wednesday.
“The American military has been completely rebuilt under my administration, at a cost of $2.5 trillion. U.S. Armed Forces are stronger than ever before.”
Context: Trump has freed up additional money for the military as the White House and Congress have brokered budget agreements in recent years to roll back deep sequestration cuts to Defense and non-Defense spending. However, the president has often overstated the level of investment.
Todd Harrison, a military budget expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Trump’s claim of spending more than $2 trillion on military equipment over the last three years is incorrect. The Pentagon bought less than half a trillion on equipment over that period, according to Harrison. Personnel costs, operations and research and development account for much of the remaining balance.
Downing of U.S. drone
What he said: “In recent months alone, Iran has seized ships in international waters, fired an unprovoked strike on Saudi Arabia, and shot down two U.S. drones.”
Context: A single U.S. military surveillance drone was downed by Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) in June 2019 as it was flying over the Strait of Hormuz, a vital chokepoint for transporting oil. The IRGC said the aircraft had violated Iranian airspace, and that the incident sent a “clear message to America.” However, the Pentagon said the drone was over international waters at the time is was shot down.
At the time, in response to the incident, President Donald Trump tweeted: “Iran made a very big mistake!” A month later the US had shot down an Iranian drone that was menacing a US Navy ship in the Persian Gulf.
What he said: The Trump administration has justified the U.S. strike last week killing Soleimani by saying the Iranian general was planning additional attacks in Iraq against U.S. troops. “In recent days, he was planning new attacks on American targets,” Trump said in his remarks Wednesday. “But we stopped him.”
Context: Was Soleimani planning an attack that justified his killing? It’s unclear. Trump administration officials have not offered detailed information in public about the timing or extent of the plots by Soleimani that prompted the order. Soleimani has been linked to sophisticated roadside bomb attacks that killed hundreds of U.S. troops in the Iraq war and more recently rocket fire that killed an American contractor on Dec. 27.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Tuesday made the most definitive statement when he told reporters that the attacks Soleimani was planning were likely days, not weeks, from being launched. Esper cited “exquisite” intelligence about Soleimani’s plans to kill American personnel. Some Democratic members of Congress, including Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, have said the Trump administration has failed to offer tangible evidence that Soleimani’s attacks were imminent.
What he said: ” [Qasem Soleimani] trained terrorist armies, including Hezbollah, launching terrorist strikes against civilian targets.” And, “he orchestrated the violent assault on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.”
Context: As the head of the Quds Force, an elite military branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Soleimani directed pro-Iranian, non-state groups or proxies from Lebanon to Yemen. At the time of his death, he was managing and mobilizing militias in Iraq, including groups responsible for a recent siege on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
Lebanon’s Iran-allied Hezbollah movement is one of the proxies Soleimani had close ties with, including its leader Hassan Nasrallah, who urged Iran after Soleimani’s death to target the U.S. military presence in the Middle East. Hezbollah is designated as a terrorist organization by a large section of the international community.
‘Death to America’ chant
What he said: “Iran’s hostilities substantially increased after the foolish Iran nuclear deal was signed…. Instead of saying ‘thank you’ to the United States, they chanted ‘death to America.’ In fact, they chanted ‘death to America’ the day the agreement was signed.”
Context: As a slogan, “Death to America” has been a staple of Iranian political discourse since the Islamic Republic’s Revolution in 1979 and can regularly be heard at large Friday prayer services in Tehran and across the country. It can frequently be heard at pro-government demonstrations, sessions in parliament, official ceremonies and at meetings with current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Across Tehran, large paintings and billboards can be seen that display fiery anti-American messages and portraits.
Contributing: Kim Hjelmgaard, Deirdre Shesgreen and David Brinkerhoff
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