Confused about Iran? Here’s an explainer
Tensions between the United States and Iran have soared in recent months to what appears to be near boiling point.
The two countries have been at loggerheads for decades, with Washington accusing the oil-rich country of destabilising the Middle East by backing extremist groups and attempting to develop a nuclear arsenal, and Tehran accusing the US of imperialism and trying to provoke another conflict in the region.
But US-Iran relations stabilised in 2015 when Iran and the P5+1 countries (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the US) signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which restricted Tehran’s enriched uranium stockpile in exchange for sanctions relief.
By limiting Iran’s nuclear activity, the P5+1 nations ensured the Islamic Republic would focus its nuclear research on civilian applications, such as energy.
The partial lifting of sanctions also opened up Iran’s economy to major Western markets, which was particularly embraced by Europe.
However, not everyone was happy with the JCPOA, commonly referred to as the Iran nuclear deal.
Hardliners viewed the deal as rewarding Tehran for bad behaviour and indicative of a weak Obama Administration.
Among the critics was current US President Donald Trump, who withdrew the US from the JCPOA in 2018 and consequentially initiated a plunge in US-Iran relations that has seen fiery barbs increasingly exchanged between Washington and Tehran.
In March, Mr Trump officially recognised the disputed Golan Heights as belonging to Israel and received condemnation from Iran and the rest of the Arab world in a rare moment of solidarity.
The following month, the US President took the controversial step of designating the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a terrorist organisation which drew ire from both the Iranian leadership and the IRGC.
However, more recently the rhetoric has somewhat transformed into action and brought the likelihood of war into the spotlight.
The Trump Administration has repeatedly warned Iran against threatening its interests in the Middle East amid concerns of Iran-backed militias possibly targeting American troops in Iraq.
Last month, Washington flexed its military might by ramping up its presence in the Middle East, deploying an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers.
The Persian Gulf is also home to the US Fifth Fleet, which is responsible for American naval operations in the region and is headquartered in Bahrain.
In response, Iran has often dismissed the US’ actions as unfounded sabre-rattling, but maintained that it is ready for war should Washington instigate a conflict.
Following the US withdrawal of all non-emergency personnel from Iraq, the Commander-in-Chief of the IRGC, Major General Hossein Salami, warned last month that war is increasingly likely, telling the Fars News Agency:
“We are on the cusp of a full-scale confrontation with the enemy. 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.”
President Trump has also dealt his fair share of warnings.
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
In an unprecedented escalation, two oil tankers were attacked in the Gulf of Oman last week, spiking global oil prices to the benefit of Iran.
The US claims it has evidence proving Tehran is responsible for the attacks and has already decided to deploy an extra 1,000 troops to the Middle East.
Iran has denied the allegations, but a growing number of countries, including key regional players like Saudi Arabia, are laying the blame on the Iranian Government.
Following months of US warnings about threatening American interests, this is precisely the kind of incident that could light the fuse of a deadly international conflict.
And while the Trump Administration is saying it wants a diplomatic solution, its actions suggest otherwise.
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