There is a growing belief among some Trump administration officials that Iran's missiles intentionally missed areas populated by Americans when they targeted two Iraqi bases housing US troops early Wednesday local time, multiple administration officials said.
Iran fired a number of missiles aimed at the bases in retaliation for the American strike that killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani last week, further escalating tensions between the two countries. Officials have said there were no US casualties as a result of the attacks, though a full assessment is underway.
The administration officials floated the notion that Iran could have directed their missiles to hit areas that are populated by Americans, but intentionally did not.
And they suggested Iran may have chosen to send a message rather than take significant enough action to provoke a substantial US military response, a possible signal the administration was looking for rationale to calm the tensions.
Iranian missiles also landed close to the US consulate in Erbil, but didn't target the consulate itself, though the belief is that they could have.
"We could have done it and we didn't do it," is the message Iranians appeared to be sending, a State Department official said.
This interpretation will be presented to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a briefing early Wednesday, and Pompeo is expected to brief President Donald Trump at some point later in the day. The President will address the nation about the incident at 11 a.m. ET, the White House said.
The US gave Iran the "opportunity to do what they needed to do and not escalate by killing Americans," the official said, suggesting how the administration could frame the retaliation. This was "a smart move" by the Iranians who demonstrated that they had "more to lose" if they killed Americans.
Now, the major question is if Iranian proxies follow suit, the official explained. Pompeo is "pragmatic" right now and the general sentiment Tuesday night was "let's take a breath."
There were no additional moves taken overnight to add any more protection to US diplomatic facilities abroad.
Iraq received "an official verbal message" from Iran about the missile attack shortly before midnight on Wednesday, according to a statement from Iraq's Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi. He said Iraq was told that the strike would be "limited to the whereabouts of the US military in Iraq, without giving the exact location."
Trump's decision to kill Soleimani, one of Iran's most powerful men, has touched off a fresh crisis between the US and Iran. Following the strike, Pompeo and other top officials had said US wants to de-escalate the crisis, but Trump on Saturday vowed specific military action against Iran if it "strikes any Americans, or American assets."
This story has been updated to include additional reporting.