An American drone strike on Baghdad airport on January 3, 2020 killed Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Quds Force and one of the country’s most powerful men, and brought Washington and Tehran to the brink of all-out war.
While the strike marked a sudden and violent escalation of tensions between the two countries, trouble has been brewing since early 2018 – when former US president Donald Trump tore up the nuclear deal signed under Obama.
Here is the series of events that left the Middle East teetering on a knife-edge:
May 9: Donald Trump announces that the US will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, calling it ‘defective at its core’, and says strict new sanctions will be imposed on Tehran
May 21: The US issues a list of 12 demands that it says Iran must comply with – including the complete abandonment of its nuclear energy program – or else face sanctions. The list is rejected by Tehran
Donald Trump signs an executive order reimposing sanctions on Iran and effectively tearing up the nuclear deal signed by Obama
August 7: America imposes the first round of sanctions, including cancelling a multi-billion dollar deal for Boeing aircraft and banning the sale of gold to Tehran
November 5: Second round of sanctions announced, this time against Iranian oil exports – Tehran’s primary source of income – and cutting off access to banking markets
April 8: Donald Trump designates the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran’s domestic military force, a ‘terrorist group’, imposing travel bans and economic sanctions against its leaders
May 5: National Security Adviser John Bolton announces a Carrier Strike Group and Air Force bombers are being deployed to the region to combat ‘a number of troubling and escalatory indications’
May 8: On the eve of the one-year anniversary of Trump tearing up the deal, Iran says it will stop complying by increasing it stockpiles of Uranium and enriching to near weapons-grade levels
May 12: Four oil tankers belonging to Saudi Arabia, Norway and the UAE are hit by explosions near Fujairah in an attack that America blamed on Tehran
An oil tanker burns in the Strait of Hormuz – one of two belonging to Japan and Norway that were attacked on June 13
June 13: Two more tankers, this time belonging to Norway and Japan, are rocked by explosions which Washington again attributes to the Iranian regime
June 19: A US Navy drone is shot down by Iranian anti-aircraft missiles over the Strait of Hormuz, prompting Trump to order and then rapidly cancel airstrikes against Iranian targets
July 4: British Marines seize the Grace 1, an Iranian oil tanker which they said was bound for Syria, off the coast of Gibraltar as it sailed into the Mediterranean
July 10: British Heritage tanker is harassed by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps vessels in the Strait of Hormuz, but they are driven back by a Royal Navy warship
July 20: British-flagged tanker Stena Impero is seized by the IRGC and towed to Bandar Abbas, where it is kept under armed guard by gunboats
August 15: Britain agrees to release the Iranian tanker after seeking assurances that it will not head to Syria
September 14: Drones and cruise missiles are used to attack a Saudi oil field at Khurais and the country’s largest refinery at Abqaiq, knocking out a third of the world’s oil supply. The US and Saudis blame Iran, which denies responsibility
September 27: Iran releases the Stena Impero and its crew
Smoke is seen billowing from Saudi Arabia’s largest oil refinery at Abqaiq, after and attack that Riyadh blamed on Iran
October 11: Iranian oil tanker sailing off the coast of Jeddah is rocked by two explosions which Iran says were caused by guided missiles fired by Saudi Arabia
December 27: An American military contractor is killed in a rocket attack near the city of Kirkuk, Iraq, in an attack which Washington blames on Iran
December 29: America launches retaliatory strikes against Kataeb Hezbollah, part of pro-Iran People Mobilization Forces in Iraq, killing 25 people
December 31: American embassy in Baghdad is attacked by PMF forces led by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who is pictured among camouflage-clad protesters outside
January 3: Qassem Soleimani arrives in Baghdad airport on a jet from either Lebanon or Syria, is hit by missiles fired from an American Reaper drone and killed. Muhandis is also killed, along with Mohammed Ridha Jabri, a senior PMF figure
The burning wreckage of a car believed to have been carrying General Soleimani at Baghdad airport after being hit by a US drone
Pictured: Officials stand near the wreckage after an Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737-800 carrying 176 people crashed near Imam Khomeini Airport in Tehran, killing everyone on board; in Shahriar, Iran, 08 January 2020
January 8: Iraq’s Al Asad Airbase, which hosts U.S.-led coalition troops, was attacked with ballistic missiles as a part of Iran’s ‘Operation Martyr Soleimani’, named for general Qasem Soleimani. It was also reported that the airbase in Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan was attacked as well.
Hours after the attack, Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 crashed just after taking off from Tehran International Airport, killing all 176 passengers and crew, including 82 Iranian and 63 Canadian citizens.
March: More rocket strikes in Iraq. One strike kills two Americans – a soldier and a contractor – and a British soldier.
April: Revolutionary Guards chief Hossein Salami says he has ordered Tehran’s naval forces to destroy any US warships that threaten the ‘security’ of Iranian vessels, after Trump said he had told the US Navy to fire on any Iranian ships that harass it at sea.
October: US threatened to close its embassy in Baghdad unless the attacks stopped.
December: Spray of rockets are launched at the US embassy. Trump vows that if one American is killed he will launch a massive bombing campaign.
January 4: Iran seizes a South Korean-flagged tanker in the Gulf, the first such seizure in more than a year. Iran cited ‘environmental reasons’ and demanded money for its damage to the environment.
January 22: Iran’s supreme leader appeared to threaten Trump with revenge on Twitter, before the social media platform suspended the ad-hoc account.
February 15: Rocket fire targeted Erbil Airbase in Iraqi Kurdistan; one US-led coalition civilian contractor was killed and eight others, including a US soldier, were wounded in the attack.
February 26: U.S. President Joe Biden ordered airstrikes against Kata’ib Hezbollah facilities in the town of Abu Kamal, Syria in retaliation for a recent rocket strike in Erbil.
The attack left casualties among Kata’ib Hezbollah and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, with the dead ranging from 1 to 17 or as high as 22 militants, with varying reports.