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Dublin: 21 °C Wednesday 12 August, 2020

Explainer: How have the US and Iran come to the brink of war?

Tensions in the region have seen a US drone shot down and air strikes cancelled at the 11th hour.

A demonstrator burns a US flag in Tehran.
A demonstrator burns a US flag in Tehran.
Image: AP/PA Images

TENSIONS BETWEEN IRAN and the United States had already intensified with the shooting down of a US drone last week.

That action almost led to a retaliatory strike by the US, until President Donald Trump cancelled the operation with seemingly minutes to spare

Both sides are blaming each other for the rising tensions, so how exactly has it got to the point where a military conflict has become a distinct possibility?

The start of the deal

The root cause of the current dispute between the two nations stems from Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which was penned between the Islamic Republic and a group of world powers. 

The deal essentially sought to curb Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for billions of dollars in relief from international sanctions.

It was seen as perhaps the most significant foreign policy achievement of the Obama White House but Trump has consistently criticised it.

During his election campaign, Trump consistently railed against the agreement and last year pulled out of the deal, claiming it amounted to paying Iran not to develop nuclear weapons. 

Perhaps tellingly, Trump also said that Iranians deserve a better government.

Other signatories to the deal, including the EU and China, stayed within the agreement but the US pulling out meant it could again resume sanctions on Iran.

The sanctions included penalising other nations for buying Iranian oil exports, an action that has massively hurt Iran’s economy. 

The US also bolstered its military presence in the Middle East and blacklisted Iran’s Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organisation.

This stress on the Iranian economy has ratcheted up the tension between the two nations but this latest series of provocations also came as a result of actions relating to oil.

Oil tanker

Source: Associated Press/YouTube

Last week two tankers operating in the Gulf of Oman, a vital shipping route that is used to transport oil from the Middle East around the world, were attacked. 

It sent oil prices skyrocketing and the US blamed Iran for the attacks. 

Iran denied it carried out the attacks and the US sought to prove its involvement by releasing a video which it said showed Iran’s Revolutionary Guard removing an unexploded mine from the side of one of the damaged oil tankers.

UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said that Iran was “almost certainly” behind the attacks but the EU’s primary response was to call for “maximum restraint” amid the ongoing tensions. 


The war of words escalated significantly when Iran shot down an unmanned US Navy surveillance drone not long after the attack on two tankers. 

The drone was shot down over the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow strait separates the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf. 

Again, there was claim and counterclaim over what exactly happened with the US claiming that the drone was over international waters and Iran insisting its airspace was violated. 

Tehran said its response to the drone was “a clear message” from the “defenders of the borders” of Iran

“The borders represent our red line,”  the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard said after the incident.

We declare that we are not looking for war but we are ready to respond to any declaration of war.

According to US Central Command spokesman, Navy Captain Bill Urban, the drone was downed by an Iranian surface-to-air missile system while flying in international airspace.

“Iranian reports that the aircraft was over Iran are false,” he said. “This was an unprovoked attack on a US surveillance asset in international airspace.”

‘Cocked and loaded’

Tweet by @Donald J. Trump Source: Donald J. Trump/Twitter

After Trump was asked by reporters about the drone being shot down, the president’s response was that Iran had made “a very big mistake”. 

The ominous statement sounded like a threat of retaliation and this threat was almost carried out within 12 hours of the tweet. 

The New York Times first reported that Trump had ordered but then pulled back on strikes on several Iranian military sites. 

The reported stated that planes were already in the air and that the operation was in its early stages when the decision was taken to call it off.

Trump himself confirmed the story the following morning by tweeting that US military assets were “cocked and loaded” to retaliate but that he decided to call off the operation “10 minutes before the strike” because he was informed it could result in 150 deaths. 

Some experts have cast doubt on the claim that Trump was informed about the potential deaths at such a late stage. Such information would usually be shared during the early stages of planning. 

Over the weekend, the Washington Post and others reported that the US had launched cyber attacks against Iranian missile control systems and a spy network.

The international community has become increasingly alarmed about the potential for the outbreak of a US-Iranian conflict.

French President Emmanuel Macron sent his top diplomatic adviser to Iran last week as part of European efforts to defuse tensions between Tehran and Washington.

The adviser, Emmanuel Bonne, held “high-level meetings”  in Tehran, “with the aim of contributing to the de-escalation of tensions in the region”. 

The latest development in the tit-for-tat between the US and Iran will do nothing to quell those tensions however – Trump has this evening ordered new “hard-hitting” financial sanctions on Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, holding him “ultimately responsible” for the Islamic republic’s “destabilising activities”.

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About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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