The attack at Baghdad International Airport also killed Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of Iran-backed militias known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF).
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei swiftly pledged to take “severe revenge” for Soleimani’s assassination.
Trump and US officials have defended the move, saying it was “self defence”.
Here’s a look at the key events have led to the current situation:
Trump made good on an election campaign promise, announcing on May 8 that the US is withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA).
“I made clear that if the deal could not be fixed, the United States would no longer be a party to the agreement,” Trump said at the time. “The Iran deal is defective at its core.”
The JCPOA had tightly restricted Iran’s nuclear programme in return for ending sanctions that had severely damaged its economy.
In response, Iran called Trump’s decision “unacceptable” and said it will bypass Washington and negotiate with the deal’s other remaining signatories: France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia and China.
US sets outs tough demands
The US on May 21 demanded Iran make sweeping changes – from dropping its nuclear programme to pulling out of the Syrian war – or face severe economic sanctions.
The Trump administration’s 12 demands, which are outlined by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, were rejected by Tehran.
The US on August 7 reimposed the first round of sanctions on Iran, originally lifted as part of the nuclear deal.
They prohibited trade with a number of business sectors – from aviation and carpets to pistachios and gold.
Second round of sanctions
On November 5, the US announced a new round of sanctions, this time specifically targeting the key oil and banking sectors.
‘Foreign terrorist organisation’
On April 8, Trump announced he was designating a powerful arm of the Iranian military, the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a foreign terrorist organisation.
It was the first time Washington formally labelled another country’s military a “terrorist group”.
The designation imposed wide-ranging economic and travel sanctions on the IRGC that went into effect on April 15.
Responding to the move, Iran immediately declared the US a “state sponsor of terrorism” and called Washington’s forces in the region “terrorist groups”.
US sends aircraft carrier to the Middle East
On May 5, Trump’s then-National Security Adviser John Bolton announced the US was sending an aircraft carrier strike group and Air Force bombers to the Middle East “in response to a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings”.
“The United States is not seeking war with the Iranian regime, but we are fully prepared to respond to any attack, whether by proxy, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or regular Iranian forces,” Bolton said at the time.
On May 8, Iran said it was preparing to increase enriched uranium and heavy water production as part of its decision to stop certain commitments made under the nuclear deal.
A year after Washington withdrew from the deal and later reimposed sanctions on Tehran, Trump announced new measures against Iran’s steel and mining sectors.
Starting today, Iran does not keep its enriched uranium and produced heavy water limited. The EU/E3 2 will face Iran’s further actions if they can not fulfill their obligations within the next 60 days and secure Iran’s interests. Win-Win conditions will be accepted.
— Hassan Rouhani (@HassanRouhani) May 8, 2019
Tankers ‘subjected to sabotage operations’
On May 12, the United Arab Emirates said four commercial ships off the coast of Fujairah, one of the world’s largest bunkering hubs, “were subjected to sabotage operations”.
Officials identified the damaged ships as the Saudi oil tankers Al-Marzoqah and Amjad, the Norwegian tanker Andrea Victory, and a UAE bunkering barge, the A Michel.
Fujairah is the only Emirati terminal located on the Arabian Sea, bypassing the Strait of Hormuz through which most Gulf oil exports pass.
Iran, which has repeatedly threatened to close the Strait in case of a military confrontation with the US, called the incidents “alarming and regrettable”.
Houthis attack oil pipeline
Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who were locked in a long-running war with a Saudi-UAE-led military coalition, launched drone attacks on Saudi Arabia on May 14, striking a major oil pipeline and taking it out of service.
Two days later, Riyadh, a key US ally, blamed Iran for the attack.
The US and Saudi Arabia accused Iran of arming the Houthis, but Tehran denied the claim.
‘Never threaten the US’
On May 19, a rocket landed near the US embassy in Baghdad. No one was harmed.
It was not clear who is behind the attack, but Trump tweeted at the time: “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!”
If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 19, 2019
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif responded by saying Trump had been “goaded” into “genocidal taunts”.
Goaded by #B_Team, @realdonaldTrump hopes to achieve what Alexander, Genghis & other aggressors failed to do. Iranians have stood tall for millennia while aggressors all gone. #EconomicTerrorism & genocidal taunts won’t “end Iran”. #NeverThreatenAnIranian. Try respect—it works!
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) May 20, 2019
After meeting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who offered to broker dialogue between Washington and Tehran, Trump said on May 27 the US was “not looking for regime change” in Iran.
Shinzo Abe in Tehran
On June 12, Abe arrived in Tehran in a bid to mediate between the US and Iran.
A day later, he met Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who told him: “I don’t consider Trump as a person worthy of exchanging messages with. I have no response for him and will not answer him.”
New shipping incident
On June 13, with Abe still in Iran, a Japanese and a Norwegian tankers came under “attack” in the Gulf of Oman, according to the Norwegian maritime authority and the Japanese shipowner.
The US Fifth Fleet said it received two separate distress calls from the tankers in a “reported attack”.
Iran spoke initially of “accidents” and says it rescued 44 crew. Zarif called tanker “attacks” during Abe’s visit “suspicious”.
More US troops in the region
On June 17, the Pentagon authorised the deployment of 1,000 additional troops to the Middle East.
On the same date, Iran said it was 10 days away from surpassing the limits set by the nuclear deal on its stockpile of low-enriched uranium.
Iran said it could reverse the move if the deal’s European signatories step in and make an effort to circumvent US sanctions.
US drone is shot down
On June 20, Iranian forces shot down a US military drone.
Both countries confirmed the incident but offer diverging accounts about the location of the aircraft.
The US said it was flying above international waters, while Iran said the drone was flying in Iranian airspace.
Trump says he has called off an attack
On June 21, Trump said he called off a military strike on Iran the night before, which was intended as retaliation against Tehran for the downing of the unmanned US drone.
Trump said he did so 10 minutes before the planned attack because of potential casualties, saying it was “not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone”.
Trump said a US strike could have killed 150 people, and signalled he was open to talks with Tehran.
….proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone. I am in no hurry, our Military is rebuilt, new, and ready to go, by far the best in the world. Sanctions are biting & more added last night. Iran can NEVER have Nuclear Weapons, not against the USA, and not against the WORLD!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 21, 2019
Iran to ‘confront and threat’
On June 22, Iran said it was ready to respond firmly to any US threat against it.
“We will not allow any violation against Iran’s borders. Iran will firmly confront any aggression or threat by America,” said Abbas Mousavi, foreign ministry spokesman.
On the same day, Iran ordered the execution of a “defence ministry contractor” convicted of spying for the US Central Intelligence Agency, while the US vowed to impose fresh sanctions, adding that military action was still “on the table”.
New US sanctions
On June 25, Trump signed an order targeting Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, and associates with additional financial sanctions
“Sanctions imposed through the executive order … will deny the supreme leader and the supreme leader’s office, and those closely affiliated with him and the office, access to key financial resources and support,” the US president said.
Responding to the announcement, Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, tweeted that hawkish politicians close to Trump were thirsty for war rather than diplomacy.
.@realDonaldTrump is 100% right that the US military has no business in the Persian Gulf. Removal of its forces is fully in line with interests of US and the world. But it’s now clear that the #B_Team is not concerned with US interests—they despise diplomacy, and thirst for war.
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) June 24, 2019
Rouhani dismissed the sanctions as “outrageous and idiotic”, adding that Tehran’s “strategic patience” should not be mistaken for fear.
US deploys F-22 stealth fighters
On June 29, the US Air Forces Central Command said in a statement that F-22 Raptor stealth fighters were being deployed in the region “to defend American forces and interests”.
Tehran exceeds uranium limit
On July 1, Iran exceeded the limit on the amount of enriched uranium in its stockpile set out in the nuclear deal.
The United Nations’s atomic watchdog confirmed that its inspectors had verified the 300kg cap had been breached.
Zarif said the accumulation of more enriched uranium than permitted under the deal was not a violation of the pact.
Tanker carrying Iranian oil stopped
On July 4, British Royal Marines, police and customs agents in Gibraltar seized a supertanker accused of carrying Iranian crude oil to Syria in breach of European Union sanctions.
The Grace 1 vessel was boarded on Thursday when it slowed down in a designated area used by shipping agencies to ferry goods to ships in the UK territory along Spain’s southern coast.
Iran passes new nuclear deal limit
On July 8, Iran passed the uranium enrichment cap set in the nuclear deal, the second time in a week that it makes good on a promise to reduce compliance with the accord.
Captain of Iranian vessel arrested
On July 12, police in Gilbratar arrested the captain and chief officer of an Iranian tanker that was seized by British forces the previous week.
Iran seizes British oil tanker
On July 19, the IRGC said its forces seized a British oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz.
The Stena Impero tanker “was confiscated by the Revolutionary Guards at the request of Hormozgan Ports and Maritime Organisation when passing through the Strait of Hormuz, for failing to respect international maritime rules”, the force said in its official website at the time.
— Press TV (@PressTV) July 20, 2019
British navy to escort all UK vessels in Strait of Hormuz
HMS Montrose, a British frigate, was tasked to sail alongside the ships for protection.
“Freedom of navigation is crucial for the global trading system and world economy, and we will do all we can to defend it,” a UK government spokesperson said.
US sanctions Zarif
On August 1, the US imposed sanctions on Zarif for acting on behalf of Khamenei.
“Javad Zarif implements the reckless agenda of Iran’s Supreme Leader, and is the regime’s primary spokesperson around the world,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement at the time.
Zarif brushed off the move on Twitter, saying it indicates Washington saw him as a “threat”.
“It has no effect on me or my family, as I have no property or interest outside of Iran,” he said.
The US’ reason for designating me is that I am Iran’s “primary spokesperson around the world” Is the truth really that painful? It has no effect on me or my family, as I have no property or interests outside of Iran. Thank you for considering me such a huge threat to your agenda.
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) July 31, 2019
Seized Iranian tanker free to sail
On August 15, Gibraltar’s Supreme Court ruled that the Grace 1 was free to sail, just hours after the US made a last-minute attempt to keep the vessel under detention.
Iran unveils new missile defence system
On August 23, Rouhani inducted a locally built air-defence system into the country’s missile defence network at an unveiling ceremony in Tehran.
Iran began production after the purchase of Russia’s S-300 system was suspended in 2010 due to international sanctions that have barred it from importing many weapons.
Speaking at the ceremony, Rouhani said the mobile surface-to-air system was “better than S-300 and close to [more advanced] S-400”.
Zarif meets Macron
“Iran’s active diplomacy in pursuit of constructive engagement continues,” Zarif said. “Road ahead is difficult. But worth trying.”
On the same day, Iran said it sold 2.1m barrels of crude oil on board the tanker that was seized in Gibraltar the previous month, adding that the vessel’s new owner will decide on its next destination.
Iran further exceeds nuclear-deal limits
On August 30, the UN said Iran was still exceeding limitations set by its nuclear deal with world powers, increasing its stock of enriched uranium and refining it to a greater purity than allowed in the agreement.
The quarterly report from the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed Iran was progressively backing out of the pact in retaliation for the US’s withdrawal from the accord and the subsequent renewal of sanctions that had hit Iranian oil sales.
Sanctions on Iran’s space agencies
The measures imposed by the US Department of the Treasury targeted the Iran Space Agency, Iran Space Research Center and the Astronautics Research Institute.
“The United States will not allow Iran to use its space launch program as cover to advance its ballistic missile programs,” said US Secretary of State Pompeo.
US intensifies pressure
On September 4, the US turned up the economic pressure on Iran, blacklisting an oil shipping network that Washington alleges is directed by the IRGC.
The US Treasury accused the blacklisted group of firms, ships and individuals of breaching sanctions by supplying Syria with oil worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
The Trump administration, meanwhile, said it would not accommodate a proposal by France to throw a financial lifeline to Tehran.
US offers money to captain of Iranian tanker
The US offered several million dollars to the Indian captain of an Iranian oil tanker suspected of heading to Syria, the State Department confirms.
The Financial Times reported on September 5 that Brian Hook, the State Department point man on Iran, had sent emails to captain Akhilesh Kumar in which he offered “good news” of millions in US cash to live comfortably if he steered the Adrian Darya 1, formerly known as Grace 1, to a country where it could be seized.
Iran activates advanced centrifuges
On September 7, Iran started injecting gas into advanced centrifuges to increase its stockpile of enriched uranium and warns time is running out for the nuclear deal’s other signatories to save the landmark pact.
Spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi said Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation started up advanced centrifuges at the enrichment facility in Natanz, the third step by Tehran in scaling back its commitments under the crumbling pact following Washington’s withdrawal.
Bolton fired ‘over Iran’
Trump on September 10 announced via Twitter that he has fired Bolton, his national security adviser, saying he has “strongly disagreed” with many of his hawkish positions.
Bolton’s sacking was reportedly linked to a fundamental disagreement over the possible easing of US sanctions on Iran.
Taking aim at Bolton, Iran said the US should distance itself from “warmongers”.
Iran rejects accusation over Aramco attack
On September 14, Yemen’s Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for drone attacks on two major Saudi Aramco oil facilities: Abqaiq – the world’s largest oil processing plant – and the Khurais oilfield, in eastern Saudi Arabia. The pre-dawn strikes knocked out more than half of crude output from the world’s top exporter.
Pompeo swiftly blamed Iran, saying it “has now launched an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply”.
“There is no evidence the attacks came from Yemen,” Pompeo said on Twitter, referring to the Houthis’s claim of responsibility. He does not provide any evidence to support his claim.
Iran dismissed the “meaningless” US allegations, saying they were meant to justify actions against the country.
Trump lashes out at Iran at UNGA
Addressing the UN General Assembly in New York, Trump on September 24 lashed out at Iran and called countries around the world to tighten the economic noose around it.
“One of the greatest security threats facing peace-loving nations today is the repressive regime in Iran,” he said.
“The regime’s record of death and destruction is well known to us all. Not only is Iran the world’s number one state sponsor of terrorism, but Iran’s leaders are fuelling the tragic wars in both Syria and Yemen, and at the same time the regime is squandering the nation’s wealth and future in a fanatical quest for nuclear weapons.”
US Sanctions on Khamenei’s inner circle
The US on November 5 imposed new sanctions on the inner circle of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, including one of his sons.
The US Treasury said among the nine people sanctioned were also Khamenei’s chief of staff, the head of the judiciary and senior military figures. It said it also blacklisted Iran‘s Armed Forces General Staff.
Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi described the sanctions “a sign of the desperation and inability of this regime in benefiting from a diplomatic and logical approach” to important international issues, according to the official IRNA news agency.
Iran begins fuelling centrifuges
Iran on November 6, began the process of injecting uranium gas into centrifuges at the its underground Fordow facility.
Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesperson for the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran told state television the agency has delivered 2000 kilograms (4,400 pounds) of Uranium or UF6 to the Fordow plant, under the supervision of UN inspectors.
Operation to protect Gulf waters
A US-led naval coalition officially launched operations in Bahrain on November 7 to protect shipping in the troubled waters of the Gulf, following a string of attacks that Washington and its allies blamed on Iran.
Iran, which has denied any responsibility for the mystery attacks, put forward its own proposals for boosting Gulf security that pointedly exclude outside powers.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Iran on November 7 of preparing “a rapid nuclear breakout”.
Iran’s plans to increase its nuclear activity at Fordow raise concerns that Iran is positioning itself for a rapid nuclear breakout. It is now time for all nations to reject its nuclear extortion and increase pressure.
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) November 7, 2019
Iran downs ‘foreign’ drone
Iran’s state news agency IRNA says air defence forces shot down an “unknown” drone on November 8.
The United States Central Command released a statement later that Friday saying that the downed drone was not one of theirs, and that all military drones were accounted for.
Alleged reports of a U.S. drone being shot down are incorrect. If a UAS had gone down in the CENTCOM AOR it was not a #DoD asset. All U.S. equipment has been accounted for.
— U.S. Central Command (@CENTCOM) November 8, 2019
“Alleged reports of a US drone being shot down are incorrect. If a UAS had gone down in the CENTCOM AOR it was not a DoD asset,” US Central Command said in a post on Twitter.
Unrest in Iran erupts on November 15 after the government abruptly raised fuel prices by as much as 300 percent.
The unrest spread to more than 100 Iranian cities and towns and turned political as young and working-class protesters demanded that religious leaders step down.
The death toll varies. The opposition has said at least 631 people were killed while an Amnesty International figure put it at more than 300. Both have been dismissed by Iranian authorities.
US sanctions on Iran’s information minister
The US on November 22 imposed sanctions on Iran’s communications minister Mohammad Javad Azari-Jahromi for his role in “widespread censorship”.
“Iran’s leaders know that a free and open internet exposes their illegitimacy, so they seek to censor internet access to quell anti-regime protests,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.
“We are sanctioning Iran’s Minister of Information and Communications Technology for restricting internet access, including to popular messaging applications that help tens of millions of Iranians stay connected to each other and the outside world,” he added.
Iran Guard chief
Addressing thousands of demonstrators in the capital, General Hossein Salami on November 25 accused the US, the United Kingdom, Iraq and Saudi Arabi of stoking unrest in the country.
“We have shown restraint … we have shown patience towards the hostile moves of America, the Zionist regime [Israel] and Saudi Arabia against the Islamic Republic of Iran … but we will destroy them if they cross our red lines,” he said.
Eight with ‘links to CIA’ arrested
The official news agency IRNA reported on November 27 that Iranian security agents arrested at least eight people linked to the CIA during deadly unrest over petrol prices increases.
“These elements had received CIA-funded training in various countries under the cover of becoming citizen-journalists,” it quoted the intelligence ministry as saying. “Six were arrested while attending the riots and carrying out [CIA] orders and two while trying to … send information abroad.”
Pentagon denies mulling more troops
The Pentagon on December 5 denied a report that the US was weighing sending up to 14,000 more troops to the Middle East to confront a perceived threat from Iran.
The Wall Street Journal had earlier reported that the possible deployment would include “dozens” more ships and double the number of troops added to the US forces in the region.
A US Navy warship seized advanced missile parts on December 5 believed to be linked to Iran from a boat it had stopped in the Arabian Sea.
In a statement, the Pentagon said a US warship found “advanced missile components” on a stateless vessel and an initial investigation indicated the parts were of Iranian origin.
In a rare act of cooperation Iran and the US on December 7 exchanged prisoners.
Xiyue Wang, a Chinese born US citizen held in Iran since 2016 was exchanged for Massoud Soleimani, an Iranian scientist detained in the US.
The swap was facilitated by the Swiss government.
‘Budget of resistence’
On December 8, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani announced a $39bn “budget of resistance” to counter US sanctions.
Rouhani said the aim was to reduce “hardships” to help Iran’s people overcome economic difficulties.
“Contrary to what the Americans thought, that with the pressure of sanctions our country’s economy would encounter problems, thank God we have chosen the correct path … and we are moving forward,” he said.
The budget included a 15 percent wage increase for public sector employees.
Sanctions on Iran’s biggest airline
On December 11, the US Treasury imposed new sanctions on Iran’s biggest airline and its shipping industry, accusing them of transporting lethal aid to Yemen.
US Secretary of State Pompeo said Washington targeted three general sales agents of Mahan Air over the role the airline has allegedly played in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
Also blacklisted was an Iranian shipping network that the US accused of involvement in smuggling aid from Iran to Yemen on behalf of armed groups.
Visa restrictions on Iranian officials
On December 19, the US announced that it will restrict visas for Iranian official for their alleged roles in suppressing peaceful protests and imposed sanctions on two Iranian judges.
The sanctions imposed by the Treasury freezes any assets the two judges have in the US, and bars US citizens from dealing with them.
On December 27, a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base in Kirkuk killed a US contractor and wounded several US servicemembers and Iraqi personnel.
In its statement confirming the attack, the US-led coalition against the ISIL did not specify who might be responsible, but US officials later blamed Kataib Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militia, for the attack.
Two days later – on December 29 – the US military carried out “defensive strikes” on sites in Iraq and Syria belonging to Kataib Hezbollah that Washington said was in retaliation for the killing of the US contractor.
Iraqi security and militia sources said at least 25 fighters were killed and 55 others wounded following the air attacks in Iraq on Sunday.
At least four Kataib Hezbollah commanders were among the dead, the sources said, adding that one of the raids had hit the Iran-backed group’s headquarters near the western al-Qaim district on the border with Syria.
Iran strongly condemned the attacks with a government spokesman saying: “America has shown its firm support for terrorism and its neglect for the independence and sovereignty of countries and it must accept consequences for its illegal act.”
On December 31, enraged members and supporters of pro-Iranian paramilitary groups in Iraq, broke into the heavily fortified US embassy compound in Baghdad, smashing a main door and setting parts of its perimeter on fire.
Trump blamed Iran for killing the US contractor and the ensuing tensions around the embassy.
“Iran is orchestrating an attack on the US Embassy in Iraq. They will be held fully responsible,” he wrote on Twitter.
….Iran will be held fully responsible for lives lost, or damage incurred, at any of our facilities. They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat. Happy New Year!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 31, 2019
US troops and Iraqi security forces fired tear gas and stun grenades at the protesters – PMF members and their supporters – who had encircled the embassy compound.
The sit-in ended on January 1, 2020.
Esper warns Iran may be planning attacks on US interests
Meanwhile, on January 2, US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said there were “some indications” that Iran or groups it supports “may be planning additional attacks” on US interests in the Middle East.
“If that happens then we will act and by the way, if we get word of attacks or some type indication, we will take pre-emptive action as well to protect American forces to protect American lives,” the Pentagon chief told reporters.
US assassinates Soleimani
In a predawn air raid in at Iraq’s Baghdad airport on January 3, the US strikes and kills Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of Iran-backed militias known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces, or PMF.
Iran vows harsh retaliation.
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