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How the U.S. got to the brink of war with Iran

U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal sparked a sort of tit-for-tat over about 18 months, culminating in the killing of Qassem Soleimani.

A quick look at the escalating events of the past 18 months

The past 18 months have seen an escalation of a tit-for-tat situation between U.S. President Donald Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. (Carolyn Caster/Vahid Salemi/The Associated Press)

The U.S. defence secretary said Tuesday that the United States "is not looking to start a war with Iran" and that what it wants to see is "the situation de-escalated." 

Tensions have been intensifying between the two countries since U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal — formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — in May 2018. 

As part of the multi-nation agreement, Iran agreed to focus its nuclear program on commercial production of enriched uranium, rather than weapons-grade. In return, crippling economic sanctions were lifted. 

But Trump's decision to withdraw from the deal sparked a sort of tit-for-tat over about 18 months, culminating in the killing of Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani. 

What happened after the U.S. withdrew? 

After pulling the U.S. from the JCPOA on May 8, 2018, Trump reimposed all of the economic sanctions that were lifted under the 2015 deal. They target Iran's energy, financial, shipping and shipbuilding industries, and basically prevent Iran from selling its oil internationally.

About a year later, Trump imposed a set of new sanctions targeting Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his office. Trump cited the downing of an American drone by Iran the week earlier for his actions, but later said he would have imposed them regardless.

Trump signs an executive order to increase sanctions on Iran in the Oval Office of the White House on June 24, 2019. (Alex Brandon/The Associated Press)

Trump had also designated Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization. The Pentagon was critical of that move, saying it could prompt retaliation from Tehran against U.S. military and intelligence forces. 

In May 2019, the U.S. bolstered its military presence in the Middle East, saying it wanted to send a clear message to Iran.

What was said:

"At the heart of the Iran deal was a giant fiction that a murderous regime desired only a peaceful nuclear energy program. Today, we have definitive proof that this Iranian promise was a lie." 

– Donald Trump, May 8, 2018

"The consistent flouting of agreements that our country is a party to risks eroding America's credibility, and puts us at odds with the world's major powers."

– Barack Obama, May 8, 2018

"The fruitless sanctions on Iran's leadership and the chief of Iranian diplomacy mean the permanent closure of the road of diplomacy with the frustrated U.S. administration."

– Abbas Mousavi, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, June 25, 2019

How did Iran respond?

In May 2019, one year after Trump's withdrawal from the nuclear deal, Iran said it would increase production of enriched uranium and heavy water, meaning it would exceed stockpile limitations set out by the accord.

A few days later, four oil tankers were attacked in the Persian Gulf. Iran never admitted responsibility, but Washington said Tehran was behind the attacks.

A month later, two more oil tankers were attacked in the Gulf of Oman. Once again, the U.S. pointed the finger at Iran, which denied responsibility. 

Then on June 20, Iran said it shot down a U.S. military drone because it had violated Iranian airspace.

The U.S. insisted it was in international airspace and Trump threatened to retaliate. But he backed down just before strikes went ahead, instead imposing more sanctions. 

What was said:

Tehran will increase its enrichment of uranium to "any amount that we want."  

– Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, July 3, 2019

Iran cannot condone the "illegal trespassing and invading of the country's skies by any kind of foreign flying object ... invaders will bear full responsibility."

 Abbas Mousavi, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, June 20, 2019

Summer of seizures

The situation continued to simmer through July 2019.

British marines seized an Iranian tanker off Gibraltar at the request of the U.S., which suspected it was shipping oil to Syria in violation of European Union sanctions, and the U.S. shot down an Iranian drone it accused of flying too close to an American warship.

Iran then seized a British oil tanker near the Strait of Hormuz, and also arrested 17 Iranian nationals, charging them with spying for the U.S. 

A speedboat belonging to Iran's Revolutionary Guard moves around a British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero, which was seized on July 19, 2019 in response to Britain's role in impounding an Iranian tanker two weeks earlier off the coast of Gibraltar. (Hasan Shirvani/Mizan News Agency via The Associated Press)

Escalation in December

On Dec. 27, 2019, rockets fired into a military base in Kirkuk, Iraq, killed an American civilian contractor. The United States blamed Kataib Hezbollah, an Iraqi militia loyal to Iran. 

The U.S. fired back, with airstrikes on five Kataib Hezbollah bases in Syria and Iraq, killing 25 people. 

That prompted protesters loyal to the militia to descend upon the U.S. embassy in Baghdad the next day, occupying part of it for about 24 hours as they demanded U.S. forces leave Iraq. The action prompted clashes with American security forces, before Kataib Hezbollah leadership said they would work with Iraq's parliament to expel the troops. 

Protesters and militia fighters gather outside the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on Jan. 1 to condemn U.S. airstrikes that killed 25 fighters of an Iran-backed militia in Iraq. (Thaier al-Sudani/Reuters)

What was said: 

"We don't care about these planes that are flying over the heads of the picketers. Neither do we care about the news that America will bring marines. On the contrary, this shows a psychological defeat and a big mental breakdown that the American administration is suffering from."

– Mohammed Mohy, Kataib Hezbollah spokesperson, Jan. 1

Soleimani's death and retaliation

On Jan. 2, the United States launched an airstrike on Baghdad's international airport, killing Soleimani, Iran's top general and the architect of Tehran's proxy wars in the Middle East, along with others.

The U.S. Defence Department said in a statement that it killed Soleimani because he "was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region."

It also accused Soleimani of approving the attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

On Jan. 7, Iran struck back, firing a series of surface-to-surface missiles at an airbase in Iraq housing U.S. troops.

It also warned the United States and its allies not to retaliate. 

What was said:

"Trump through his gamble has dragged the U.S. into the most dangerous situation in the region. Whoever put his foot beyond the red line should be ready to face its consequences."

– Hessameddin Ashena, adviser to Hassan Rouhani, on social media app Telegram, Jan. 3

A "harsh retaliation is waiting." 

– Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Jan. 3

With files from The Associated Press

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