How the Trump administration got into a showdown with Iran that could lead to war

  • Tensions between the US and Iran have reached historic heights in recent months, prompting fears among lawmakers in Washington of a new war in the Middle East.
  • The US and Iran are locked in a tit-for-tat stalemate as they both seek to gain leverage over the other in a broader dispute linked to the 2015 nuclear deal and President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from it.
  • On the evening of Thursday, January 2, the Pentagon confirmed that the US military, acting on the orders of Trump, killed the top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani.
  • Soleimani is the highest-profile official on either side to be killed in the ongoing tensions.
  • Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more stories.

Rising tensions between the US and Iran have sparked fears of a military confrontation and even of all-out war.

Here’s a timeline of the evolving situation and a summary of what the two countries have been saying.


In May 2018, President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Tensions between the US and Iran have risen ever since — particularly since the US in April moved to block all countries from buying Iranian oil.

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Trump with a memorandum reinstating sanctions on Iran after he announced his decision to withdraw the United States from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images


Source:
Insider


On May 5, John Bolton, then the US national security adviser, released a statement announcing the US was deploying an aircraft carrier strike group and B-52 bombers to the Middle East to counter threats from Iran.

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Bolton outside the White House. Reuters


Source:
WhiteHouse.gov


Bolton said the deployment was designed to send “a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack” on the US or its allies “will be met with unrelenting force.” Bolton added, “The United States is not seeking war with the Iranian regime, but we are fully prepared to respond to any attack.”

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A staff member removing the Iranian flag from the stage after a group picture with foreign ministers and representatives during the Iran nuclear talks at the Vienna International Centre. Reuters

The USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group, which consists of the carrier and its powerful carrier air wing, as well as one cruiser and four destroyers, moved into the region along with numerous B-52 Stratofortress heavy long-range bombers.

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The USS Abraham Lincoln sailing south in the Suez canal near Ismailia on May 9. Suez Canal Authority via AP


Source:
Insider


A US official said the show of force was in response to “clear indications” of a “possible attack” against US forces in the region by Iran or its proxies.

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US soldiers from 1st Cavalry Division in Samarra, Iraq, on October 9, 2011. US Amry/Pfc. Aaron Herrera


Source:
Insider


Patrick Shanahan, who at the time was the acting secretary of defence, characterised the deployment as a “prudent repositioning of assets in response to indications of a credible threat by Iranian regime forces.”

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Shanahan with Trump during a meeting with senior military leaders at the White House in Washington. Reuters

On May 8, US Air Forces Central Command announced that F-15C Eagle fighter jets were repositioned within the region to “defend US forces and interests in the region.” The next day, the Pentagon announced that the USS Arlington, an amphibious landing ship, and a Patriot surface-to-air missile battery were also on their way.

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An F-15C Eagle in 2013. US Air Force Photo


Source:
US Air Forces Central Command


Democratic lawmakers raised alarm bells over those developments. Sen. Chris Murphy, for example, on May 7 tweeted, “Hey everybody, we are at war in 3 different countries — Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria — and inching toward conflict in 2 more — Venezuela and Iran.”

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Murphy at a press conference in Washington in 2015. AP Photo/Andrew Harnik


Source:
Insider


Democratic lawmakers fearing a war with Iran were particularly wary of Bolton, an Iran hawk who had called for military strikes against it. Bolton was also one of the architects of the ultimately disastrous US invasion of Iraq in 2003. He stepped down as national security adviser, however, in September.

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Bolton. Associated Press


Source:
Insider


Republican lawmakers like Sen. Marco Rubio have rejected the idea the US wants a war with Iran, but he tweeted in May that “any efforts by Iran to threaten shipping in the Strait of Hormuz and/or to target U.S. naval vessels or commercial shipping vessels will result in a swift, devastating & justified response.”

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Rubio. Reuters


Source:
Insider


Amid all of this, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on May 8 threatened to partially withdraw from portions of the 2015 nuclear deal.

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Rouhani. Reuters


Source:
Insider


The same day, the Trump administration announced new sanctions against Iran targeting its metal exports.

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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with Trump. Getty Images


Source:
The Washington Post


“We have information that you don’t want to know about,” Trump said on May 9 in response to questions on the move. “They were very threatening and we have to have great security for this country and many other places.” He also urged Iran to hold talks with him regarding its nuclear program.

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Trump. Reuters


Source:
Reuters


On May 10, Ayatollah Tabatabai-Nejad, a high-ranking cleric in the Iranian government, warned that US forces would face “dozens of missiles” if any move was made against Iran. The next day, Yadollah Javani, the deputy head of political affairs of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, said the US “wouldn’t dare to launch military action against us.”

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Iranian guards marching during celebrations in Tehran’s Azadi Square in 2016. ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images


Source:
Insider


Overall, Trump has been fairly vague in responding to questions about Iran. “We’ll see what happens with Iran. If they do anything, it will be a very bad mistake, if they do anything,” Trump said on May 13, adding, “If they do anything, they will suffer greatly.”

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Trump waving to members of the media before boarding Marine One. Associated Press


Source:
Insider


Reports emerged suggesting the Trump administration had discussed a plan to send as many as 120,000 troops to the Middle East if Iran attacked US forces in the region or made significant steps toward developing nuclear weapons.

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A US Navy sailor on the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln while transiting the Suez Canal in Egypt. Associated Press


Source:
Insider


Trump on May 14 rejected these reports but also said he’s prepared to send “a hell of a lot more” troops than 120,000 if necessary.

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Trump. Associated Press


Source:
Insider


Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on May 14 said his country would not go to war with the US. But in what was perhaps a veiled threat, he also signalled that it wouldn’t be hard for Iran to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels.

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Khamenei. Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP

Source:Insider; Time


On May 14, Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a close ally of the US, which has supported the Saudi-led coalition in the war against the Houthis in Yemen.

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Yemen’s Houthi forces seen during a withdrawal from the Saleef port in the Hodeidah province. Reuters


Source:
The New York Times


Sen. Bernie Sanders, one of the top contenders for the 2020 Democratic nomination, on May 14 said: “It appears that John Bolton wants a war in Iran. A war in Iran would, in my view, be many times worse than the Iraq War.” Sanders said he’s “working hard” to ensure that Trump must seek congressional authorization to take any military action against Iran.

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Sanders. Hollis Johnson/Business Insider


Source:
CBS News


The US on May 15 ordered all nonessential government staff to leave Iraq. The State Department didn’t fully explain the move, but it was viewed as a possible response to the increasingly tense situation between Washington and Tehran. This also came roughly a week after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made an unscheduled visit to Iraq.

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Pompeo talking to reporters in flight after a previously unannounced trip to Baghdad. Reuters


Source:
CNN;
The New York Times


Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami, the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, on May 15 said, “We are on the cusp of a full-scale confrontation with the enemy.” Salami added, “This moment in history, because the enemy has stepped into the field of confrontation with us with all the possible capacity, is the most decisive moment of the Islamic revolution.”

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Salami, then the deputy head of the Revolutionary Guard, in 2010. Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters


Source:
Insider


The Trump administration has taken a hardline stance against Iran from the beginning, defying US allies by withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal. In keeping with this stance, Trump designated Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps a foreign terror group.

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Members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard in 2011. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo


Source:
Insider


Trump on May 19 issued a grave threat to Iran, tweeting: “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!”

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Trump. Joshua Roberts/Reuters


Source:
Insider


Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif responded to Trump’s threat via Twitter the next day. He said Trump “hopes to achieve what Alexander, Genghis & other aggressors failed to do,” adding, “Iranians have stood tall for millennia while aggressors all gone.” Zarif said “economic terrorism” and “genocidal taunts” won’t “end Iran.”

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Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Reuters


Source:
Twitter


Trump on May 24 announced the US was sending 1,500 additional troops to Iran and said they would serve a “mostly protective” role.

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Trump boarding Marine One to depart for Japan. Reuters


Source:
Insider


Two oil tankers were attacked on June 13 in the Gulf of Oman. The Trump administration blamed Iran, which denied any responsibility. Some US allies were sceptical of the Trump administration’s claims and called for an independent investigation.

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An oil tanker seen after it was attacked at the Gulf of Oman. Reuters


Source:
Insider


Iran on June 17 announced it would violate the 2015 nuclear deal by the end of the month via ramping up its enrichment of low-grade uranium and increasing its uranium stockpile.

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Rouhani at a summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on June 14. Associated Press

After Iran’s announcement on the nuclear deal, the Pentagon said it was deploying an additional 1,000 troops to the Middle East.

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An aerial view of the Pentagon in Washington. Reuters

On June 20, Iran shot down a US Navy drone. The Iranian government said the drone entered its airspace, but the US rejected this and said the drone was flying in international airspace and never entered Iranian territory.

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A drone at a hanger at a forward deployed location waiting to fly its next mission supporting Operation Enduring Freedom. Staff Sgt. Reynaldo Ramon/US Air Force/Reuters


Source:
Insider


After the drone incident, Trump considered a military strike against Iran but pulled back at the last minute. He cited concerns about civilian casualties.


Source:
Insider


Trump on June 24 announced new “hard-hitting” sanctions against Iran. “Today’s actions follow a series of aggressive behaviours by the Iranian regime in recent weeks, including shooting down of US drones,” the president said at the time.

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Trump with a memorandum reinstating sanctions on Iran. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images


Source:
Insider


Iran on July 1 announced it’s violating the 2015 nuclear deal by breaching the cap on its uranium stockpile of 300 kilograms, or 660 pounds. It also threatened to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels by July 7 if it didn’t get sanctions relief.

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A general view of the Bushehr nuclear power plant in Iran in August 2010. Raheb Homavandi/Reuters


Source:
Insider


In a statement responding to Iran’s announcement, the White House press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, on July 1 said: “The Iranian regime took action today to increase its uranium enrichment. It was a mistake under the Iran nuclear deal to allow Iran to enrich uranium at any level … Maximum pressure on the Iranian regime will continue until its leaders alter their course of action. The regime must end its nuclear ambitions and its malign behaviour.”

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Grisham. AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Iran on July 8 announced it had surpassed the 2015 nuclear deal’s cap on uranium enrichment levels (3.67%). It began enriching uranium up to levels of 4.5%, which is still far below the level needed to produce a nuclear weapon (90%).

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Rouhani at a meeting with tribal leaders in Kerbala. Reuters


Source:
IAEA


Trump on July 18 announced the USS Boxer had shot down an Iranian drone in the Strait of Hormuz. The president said the drone threatened the US ship. “The drone was immediately destroyed,” Trump said. “This is the latest of many provocative and hostile actions by Iran against vessels operating in international waters.”

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The USS Boxer, a Wasp-class amphibious assault ship, in the port of San Diego in 2015. Reuters/Louis Nastro

Iran on July 19 seized a British-flagged oil tanker, the Stena Impero. Iranian state media said the tanker was seized by the Revolutionary Guard. The incident increased tensions between Iran and the West.

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Stena Impero, a British-flagged vessel owned by Stena Bulk, seen at an undisclosed place off the coast of Bandar Abbas. Reuters


Source:
Insider


In late July, the Trump administration announced it was hitting Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif with sanctions, making the prospect of a diplomatic solution to hostilities between the US and Iran even less likely.

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Zarif in Moscow. Reuters


Source:
Insider


Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on September 4 announced Iran would begin developing more advanced centrifuges in what represented its third step away from the 2015 nuclear deal.

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Rouhani at a ceremony in Tehran on August 27. Associated Press


Source:
Insider


During the month of September, Trump and Rouhani at times flirted with the idea of holding talks at the United Nations General Assembly. But Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has said no such talks can be held unless the US lifts sanctions and returns to the 2015 nuclear deal.


On September 10, Bolton was gone as national security adviser. The Rouhani adviser Hesameddin Ashena tweeted that Bolton’s ouster was a “decisive sign of the failure of the U.S. maximum pressure strategy in the face of the constructive resistance from Iran.”

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Bolton. Reuters


Source:
Insider


On September 14, two major oil facilities in Saudi Arabia were attacked, disrupting the global oil supply. The Iran-backed Houthi rebels claimed responsibility, but the Trump administration blamed Iran.

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Smoke at a Saudi Aramco facility in the eastern Saudi city of Abqaiq. Reuters

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Trump tweeted that the US was “locked and loaded,” which signalled there might be a military response. In the days that followed, Trump walked this back slightly saying he did not want war. The Trump administration did, however, announce new sanctions against Iran.


On September 19, Zarif warned that if the US or Saudi Arabia attacked Iran, it would lead to “all-out war.” He added, “We won’t blink to defend our territory.” This came a day after Pompeo called the attack on the Saudi oil fields an “act of war.”

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Zarif. Reuters


Source:
CNN


Iran in early November announced it was taking a fourth step away from the 2015 nuclear deal — injecting uranium gas into 1,044 centrifuges that had been kept empty under the terms of the agreement.

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Rouhani delivering a speech at the Kuala Lumpur Summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on December 19. Associated Press


Source:
Insider


A rocket attack on December 27 killed a US contractor and injured four US service members at a base in Kirkuk, which is in the northeastern part of Iraq. The US has blamed the deadly attack on Kataeb Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militia. The US retaliated with airstrikes thought to have killed dozens of the militia’s fighters. Subsequently, the US Embassy in Baghdad was the subject of violent protests, prompting the US to send about 100 more Marines to the embassy for protection.

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Protesters burning property in front of the US Embassy compound in Baghdad. Associated Press


Source:
Insider


Trump explicitly blamed Iran for the violent protests at the embassy and threatened Tehran in a December 31 tweet. “Iran will be held fully responsible for lives lost, or damage incurred, at any of our facilities,” he wrote. “They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat. Happy New Year!”

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A member of Iraqi security forces at the reception room of the US Embassy in Baghdad. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

On the morning of January 2, Defence Secretary Mark Esper suggested the US might conduct preemptive strikes on Iranian-backed militias. “If we get word of attacks, we will take preemptive action as well to protect American forces, protect American lives,” he said. “The game has changed.”

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Esper. Reuters


Source:
Politico


On the evening of January 2, the Pentagon said that the US military, acting on the orders of Trump, killed the top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, who led the Revolutionary Guard’s Quds force.

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Soleimani at a meeting in Tehran in 2016. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

Soleimani became the highest-profile official on either side to be killed in the tensions between the US and Iran.

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Soleimani. Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP