The tangled roots of U.S.-Iranian relations reach back decades, from the CIA-backed coup against an elected Iranian government during the Eisenhower administration and the 1979 U.S. Embassy hostage crisis under President Carter to the Iran-Contra scandal of President Reagan’s second term.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dates the recent tensions that have brought Washington and Tehran to the brink of armed conflict, capped by the assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani by a U.S. drone on a visit to Iraq last week, to the day the Obama administration and other world powers signed what he called a flawed nuclear deal with the Iranian regime in 2015.
But the timeline vastly accelerated after President Trump renounced the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018 and reimposed a string of harsh economic sanctions on Iran and its trading partners. Iran and its regional proxies responded with a series of provocations that led to the U.S. strike early Friday.
The following is a timeline of some of the major events of the past 19 months that led to the current crisis:
May 2018 — Days after Mr. Trump pulls the U.S. out of the 2015 nuclear accord, Mr. Pompeo outlines 12 U.S. demands for changes in Iran’s foreign and domestic policies if it wants to talk with Washington and avoid powerful U.S. economic sanctions. Tehran summarily rejects the list of demands.
August-November 2018 — The Treasury Department imposes a series of economic sanctions on Iran’s export, oil and banking sectors.
April 2019 — The Trump administration designates Soleimani’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its elite Quds Force as official foreign terrorist organizations, the first time an official military of a country has been so labeled.
May 2019 — The U.S. says it is sending an aircraft carrier strike group to the region to counter “troubling” activity by Iran’s military and its regional proxies. Iran announces it is preparing to restart parts of its nuclear programs, including an increase in enriched uranium, in violation of the 2015 nuclear accord. Shortly afterward, the United Arab Emirates announces that four commercial ships, including two Saudi tankers, have been “subjected to sabotage operations” widely blamed on Iran, while a major Saudi oil pipeline is put out of commission by missiles launched by Iranian-backed Yemeni rebels. Separately, a rocket lands on the grounds of the heavily fortified U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, although no injuries are reported.
June 2019 — Even as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is in Tehran on a diplomatic mission to ease tensions, a Japanese tanker and a Norwegian vessel come under attack in the Gulf of Oman. After the Pentagon says another 1,000 U.S. troops are heading to the region, Iran announces fresh violations of the nuclear deal and shoots down an American military drone it claims has strayed into its airspace.
Mr. Trump calls off a retaliatory strike against Iranian targets minutes before its June 20 launch date, but days later signs an executive order imposing sanctions on Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his top aides. U.S. Central Command sends F-22 Raptor Stealth fighters to the region to “defend American forces.”
July 2019 — Iran announces it has exceeded the 2015 deal’s limits on enriched uranium, days before British Royal Marines seize a supertanker accused of illegally carrying Iranian crude oil to Syria. Soleimani’s IRGC responds by seizing a British oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz, leading Western powers to beef up patrols in the strategic waterway.
August 2019 — The Trump administration imposes personal sanctions on Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, a prime architect of the 2015 nuclear deal, as Iran unveils an improved missile defense system for Tehran. A U.N. nuclear watchdog report concludes that Iran is methodically and systematically violating the 2015 deal.
September 2019 — Days after Mr. Trump dismisses hawkish National Security Adviser John R. Bolton, a devastating drone attack slams into two major Saudi oil facilities, briefly crippling one of the world’s energy superpowers. Yemeni rebels say they carried out the attack, but Riyadh and Washington blame Iran. At the U.N. General Assembly in New York, Mr. Trump accuses the Iranian regime of “squandering the nation’s wealth and future in a fanatical quest for nuclear weapons.”
November 2019 — The U.S. tightens sanctions on Iranian leaders, and Iran says it has begun injecting uranium into centrifuges at a fortified research site. A U.S.-led coalition of allies and regional powers is established to protect shipping in the Gulf, just as anti-government protests break out across Iran in response to an unpopular cut in fuel subsidies. Rights groups say hundreds, and perhaps more than 1,000, protesters are killed over the next six weeks. Iran’s secret police claim to have arrested eight people working for the CIA to promote the protests.
December 2019 — Amid reports that more U.S. troops and ships are being deployed to the Middle East, the Navy seizes a weapons-laden boat from Iran thought to be headed for Yemen. The Trump administration announces sanctions on Iran’s airline and judiciary. Tensions reach a boiling point after a Dec. 27 rocket attack on the main U.S. military base inside Iraq kills an American contractor and wounds several soldiers. The U.S. responds with missile strikes against the Iran-backed Iraqi Shiite militia believed to have carried out the attack, killing at least 25 people.
January 2020 — When militia groups storm the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on New Year’s Eve to protest the rocket strikes, Mr. Trump authorizes the drone strike that kills Soleimani and a top Iraqi militia leader just outside Baghdad International Airport on Jan. 3, saying the two were plotting attacks on the U.S. and its allies. Soleimani’s deputy, Brig. Gen. Esmail Ghaani, is named the new commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force.
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