2019–20 Persian Gulf crisis
The 2019–20 Persian Gulf crisis, also known as the Iranian–American confrontation and the Crisis in the Gulf is an intensification of military tensions between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States of America in the Persian Gulf region. The U.S. began a build up of its military presence in the region to allegedly deter a planned campaign by Iran and its non-state allies to attack American forces and interests in the Persian Gulf and Iraq. This followed a rise in political tensions between the two countries during the Trump administration, which included the withdrawal of the U.S. from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the imposition of new sanctions against Iran, and the designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization. In response, Iran designated the United States Central Command as a Terrorist organization.
Several merchant ships in the Persian Gulf were damaged in two incidents in May and June 2019. Western nations blamed Iran, while Iran denied involvement. In June 2019, Iran shot down an American RQ-4A surveillance drone flying over the Strait of Hormuz, sharply increasing tensions and nearly resulting in an armed confrontation. In the same month, an Iranian oil tanker was seized by Britain in the Strait of Gibraltar on the grounds that it was shipping oil to Syria in violation of European Union sanctions. Iran later captured a British oil tanker and its crew members in the Persian Gulf. Both Iran and the UK later released the ships. Meanwhile, the U.S. created the multinational International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC), which sought to increase "overall surveillance and security in key waterways in the Middle East", according to U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Michael Mulroy.
The crisis escalated in late 2019 and early 2020 when members of the Kata'ib Hezbollah militia, which is part of Iraq's Popular Mobilization Forces, killed an American contractor in an attack on an Iraqi base hosting American personnel. In retaliation the U.S. conducted airstrikes against Kata'ib Hezbollah's facilities in Iraq and Syria, killing 25 militiamen. Kata'ib Hezbollah responded with an attack on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, which prompted the U.S. to deploy hundreds of new troops to the Middle East and announce that it would preemptively target Iran's "proxies" in Iraq. Days later, the commander of IRGC's Quds Force Qasem Soleimani and PMF commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis were both killed in a U.S. drone strike, resulting in Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei pledging to exact revenge on U.S. forces. The U.S. deployed nearly 4,000 troops in response to the tensions, and Israel heightened its security levels. On 5 January 2020, Iran ended its commitments to the nuclear deal, and the Iraqi parliament passed a resolution to expel all foreign troops from its territory.
The U.S. and Iran nearly entered into an open conflict on 8 January 2020 when the IRGC launched missile attacks against two Iraqi military bases housing U.S. soldiers in retaliation for the killing of Soleimani, a rare direct Iran–U.S. confrontation and the closest to the brink of war between the two nations in decades. Upon confirmation of no U.S. casualties, the Trump administration curtailed tensions by temporarily ruling out a direct military response but announcing new sanctions. During the crisis, Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 was shot down after departing from Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport, and Western officials said that the plane had been brought down by an Iranian SA-15 surface-to-air missile. On 11 January 2020, the Iranian military admitted in a statement that they had unintentionally shot down the plane because of human error.
- 1 Background
- 2 Timeline
- 2.1 May 2019
- 2.2 June 2019
- 2.3 July 2019
- 2.4 August 2019: Seizure of Iraqi tanker and Grace 1 controversy continues
- 2.5 September 2019: Saudi Aramco attacks and release of Stena Impero
- 2.6 November 2019: IMSC launches operations
- 2.7 December 2019: U.S. airstrikes on Iraqi militia and attack on Baghdad embassy
- 2.8 January 2020
- 3 Belligerents
- 4 Reactions
- 5 See also
- 6 References
- 7 External links
On 8 May 2018, the United States withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal, reinstating sanctions against Iran. Iran's oil production hit a historic low as a result of these sanctions. According to the BBC in April 2019, United States sanctions against Iran "led to a sharp downturn in Iran's economy, pushing the value of its currency to record lows, quadrupling its annual inflation rate, driving away foreign investors, and triggering protests." Iranian officials have accused the U.S. of waging hybrid warfare against Iran.
Tensions between Iran and the U.S. escalated in May 2019, with the U.S. deploying more military assets to the Persian Gulf region after receiving intelligence reports of an alleged "campaign" by Iran and its "proxies" to threaten U.S. forces and Strait of Hormuz oil shipping. American officials pointed to threats against commercial shipping and potential attacks by militias with Iranian ties on American troops in Iraq while also citing intelligence reports that included photographs of missiles on dhows and other small boats in the Persian Gulf, supposedly put there by Iranian paramilitary forces. The U.S. feared they could be fired at its Navy.
On 5 May 2019, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton announced that the U.S. was deploying the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group and four B-52 bombers to the Middle East to "send a clear and unmistakable message" to Iran following Israeli intelligence reports of an alleged Iranian plot to attack U.S. forces in the region. Bolton said, "The United States is not seeking war with the Iranian regime, but we are fully prepared to respond to any attack." The deployed USS Abraham Lincoln is in the Arabian Sea, outside the Persian Gulf.
On 7 May, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a surprise midnight visit to Baghdad after canceling a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Pompeo told Iraqi President Barham Salih and Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi that they had a responsibility to protect Americans in Iraq. On 8 May, an advisor to Ayatollah Khamenei said Iran was confident the U.S. was both unwilling and unable to start a war with Iran. On the same day, Iran announced that it would reduce its commitment to the JCPOA nuclear deal that the U.S. had withdrawn from. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani set a 60-day deadline for the EU and world powers to rescue the current deal before it resumed higher uranium enrichment. The United States Air Forces Central Command announced that F-15C Eagle fighter jets were repositioned within the region to "defend U.S. forces and interests in the region." On 10 May, the U.S. deployed the Marine transport ship USS Arlington and a Patriot surface-to-air missile (SAM) battery to the Middle East. The Pentagon said the buildup was in response to "heightened Iranian readiness to conduct offensive operations."
First Gulf of Oman ship attacks
On 12 May, four commercial ships, including two Saudi Aramco oil tankers, were damaged near the port of Fujairah in the Gulf of Oman. The United Arab Emirates claimed the incident was a "sabotage attack", while a U.S. assessment reportedly blamed Iran or Iranian "proxy" elements for the attack.
On 13 May, the U.S. embassy in Baghdad said that U.S. citizens should not travel to Iraq and for those who were already there to keep a low profile. On the same day, The New York Times reported that Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan presented a military plan to send as many as 120,000 troops to the Middle East if Iran attacked American forces or took steps toward developing nuclear weapons. U.S. president Donald Trump later discredited this, saying that he would instead "send a hell of a lot more" than 120,000 troops if necessary.
On 14 May, both Iranian and U.S. officials said they were not seeking war, even as threats and counter-threats continued. Ayatollah Khamenei downplayed the escalation, saying in comments carried on state television that "no war is going to happen," while Mike Pompeo said while on a visit to Russia, "We fundamentally do not seek a war with Iran." On the same day, Houthi rebels in Yemen carried out multiple drone attacks on a Saudi oil pipeline deep in Saudi territory. The U.S. said it believed Iran sponsored the attack, though it was unclear if the attack was particularly related to the Iran–U.S. tensions or related to the Yemeni Civil War that began in 2015 and the US-backed, Saudi Arabian-led intervention there. On 15 May, the U.S. State Department announced that all non-emergency staff had been ordered to leave the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
On 19 May, Trump warned that in the event of a conflict, it would be "the official end of Iran." Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif responded that Trump's "genocidal taunts" would not "end Iran". On the same day, a rocket exploded inside the heavily fortified Green Zone sector of Baghdad, landing less than a mile from the U.S. Embassy. On 24 May, the U.S. deployed 1,500 additional troops to the Persian Gulf region as a "protective" measure against Iran. The deployment included reconnaissance aircraft, fighter jets and engineers; 600 of the troops were given extended deployments, meaning 900 would be fresh troops. U.S. Navy vice admiral and Director of the Joint Staff Michael Gilday said the U.S. had a high degree of confidence that Iran's Revolutionary Guard was responsible for the 12 May explosions on four tankers and that it was Iranian proxies in Iraq that fired rockets into Baghdad's Green Zone.
On 20 May, Trump said: "We have no indication that anything's happened or will happen" in Iran. On 25 May, Trump, declaring that ongoing tensions with Iran amounted to a national emergency, invoked a rarely used legal loophole to approve the sale of $8 billion worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia. Weapons would also reportedly be sold to the UAE and Jordan. On 28 May, the International Atomic Energy Agency certified that Iran was abiding by the main terms of the JCPOA, although questions were raised on how many advanced centrifuges Iran was allowed to have, as that was only loosely defined in the deal.
On 1 June, President Rouhani suggested that Iran would be willing to hold talks but asserted that it would not be pressured by sanctions and American military posturing. On 2 June, Pompeo said the U.S. was ready for unconditional discussions with Iran on its nuclear program, but affirmed that it would not relent on pressuring Iran until it starts behaving like a "normal country". "We are prepared to engage in a conversation with no pre-conditions. We are ready to sit down," Pompeo said, while also stating that Trump had always been willing to seek dialogue with Iranian leadership. Iran's foreign ministry responded stating, "The Islamic Republic of Iran does not pay attention to word-play and expression of hidden agenda in new forms. What matters is the change of U.S. general approach and actual behavior toward the Iranian nation," which it said needed "reform". The softening dialogue came amid U.S. military exercises in the Arabian Sea, which saw various aircraft "simulating strike operations"; Yahya Rahim Safavi, top military aide to Ayatollah Khamenei, said that U.S. military vessels in the Persian Gulf were within range of Iranian missiles and warned that any clash between the two countries would push oil prices above $100 a barrel.
On 6 June, the Houthis in Yemen shot down an American MQ-9 Reaper (Predator B) drone. The US military claimed the attack was performed with Iranian assistance. U.S. Central Command commander Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. warned that Iran and its "proxy" forces still posed an "imminent" threat to U.S. forces: "I think we're still in the period of what I would call tactical warning ... The threat is very real."
Also on 6 June, the UAE, supported by Norway and Saudi Arabia, told the United Nations Security Council that the 12 May attacks had the marks of a "sophisticated and coordinated operation," and were most likely performed by a "state actor". Video of the damage to the tankers Amjad, Al Marzoqah, A Michel and Andrea Victory was released to broadcasters.
Second Gulf of Oman ship attacks
On 13 June 2019 two oil tankers caught fire after allegedly being attacked by limpet mines or flying objects in another incident in the Gulf of Oman. As in the May incident, the U.S. blamed Iranian forces for the attacks. On 17 June, the U.S. announced the deployment of 1,000 more soldiers to the Middle East.
Fresh sanctions and Iranian shoot-down of U.S. drone
Tensions reached a new high when, on 20 June, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps shot down a U.S. RQ-4A Global Hawk surveillance drone, saying that the drone violated Iranian airspace. IRGC commander Hossein Salami called the shoot-down a "clear message" to the U.S. while also warning that, though they were not seeking war, Iran was "completely ready" for it. U.S. Central Command later confirmed that the drone was shot down by Iranian surface-to-air missiles but denied that it violated Iranian airspace, calling it an "unprovoked attack" and in international airspace over the Strait of Hormuz. Iran and the U.S. provided conflicting GPS coordinates for the drone's location, making it unclear whether the drone was within Iran's 12-mile territorial boundary. The U.S. requested a 24 June closed-door United Nations Security Council meeting to address the regional tensions with Iran, according to diplomats.
Trump ordered a retaliatory military strike on Iran on 20 June, but withdrew the order minutes before the operation began. Trump said that he had decided to halt the operation after being told that as many as 150 Iranians would be killed, although some administration officials said Trump had been advised of the potential casualties before he ordered the operation to be prepared. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton reportedly objected to the reversal.
On 22 June, it was reported that Trump had approved cyber attacks that disabled IRGC computer systems used to control rocket and missile launches the night of the drone-downing. The cyber strikes were handled by U.S. Cyber Command in conjunction with U.S. Central Command. It represented the first offensive show of force since Cyber Command was elevated to a full combatant command in May 2018. Also on 22 June, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a warning to U.S. industries that Iran is stepping up cyber attacks of critical industries—particularly oil, gas and other energy sectors—and government agencies, and has the potential to disrupt or destroy systems.
On 23 June, Iranian Major General Gholam Ali Rashid warned the U.S. of "uncontrollable" consequences should a conflict break out. During a speech in Israel, Bolton said Iran should not "mistake U.S. prudence and discretion for weakness," emphasizing that future military options are not ruled out and that Trump had only "stopped the strike from going forward at this time". Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited the Persian Gulf region for talks with Saudi Arabia and the UAE in a bid to build a coalition to combat perceived Iranian nuclear and "terror" ambitions. Meanwhile, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani blamed the United States' "interventionist military presence" for the high tensions.
On 24 June, Trump announced new sanctions against the Iranian and IRGC leadership, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his office. U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the sanctions will block "billions" in assets. On the same day, Trump told reporters that he did not need congressional consent for an initial strike on Iran.
In classified briefings, Pompeo and other U.S. State Department and Pentagon officials reportedly advised members of the U.S. Congress on what they described as alarming ties between Iran and al-Qaeda—including giving the terrorist organization safe haven in the country. The New York Times reported that lawmakers were leery of assertions of Iranian links to al-Qaeda, notably due to concerns that the administration may be using specious assertions to build a case for military action against Iran based on the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists—supposed links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda were used as partial justification to invade Iraq in 2003. On 27 June, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Mulroy flatly denied that Pentagon officials linked al-Qaeda to Iran during Congressional meetings. "In these briefings, none of the officials mentioned al-Qa'ida or the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force," Mulroy said, adding that he and the Defense Intelligence Agency instead "described the historical ties between Iran and the Taliban, and I explained that these ties are widely and publicly known and referenced in articles and books".
On 25 June, Iran said that the new U.S. sanctions prompted a "permanent closure" of their diplomatic ties, and the regime refused to negotiate with Washington until the sanctions were lifted. On 27 June, Javad Zarif tweeted that sanctions are not an "alternative to war; they ARE war" and argued that Trump's usage of the term "obliteration" against Iran is a reference to genocide, a war crime. He also said that negotiations and threats are "mutually exclusive" and called the concept of only a short war with Iran an "illusion".
Following the drone shoot-down, the U.S. continued unabated to deploy military assets to the region. By 28 June, the U.S. had deployed nearly a dozen F-22 Raptor fighter jets to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar—the first ever deployment of F-22s to the base—to "defend American forces and interests".
Alleged U.S. downing of Iranian drones
|Video captured by an IRGC drone from USS Boxer, 18 July, 2019|
On 18 July, according to the Pentagon, USS Boxer took defensive action against an Iranian drone that had closed with the ship in the Persian Gulf to approximately 1,000 yards (910 m) and jammed the drone, causing it to crash. Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi denied any of the country's drones had been brought down. U.S. General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., commander of the U.S. Central Command, subsequently claimed that USS Boxer may have downed a second Iranian drone.
British and Iranian tanker seizures
On 3 July, Gibraltar enacted "Sanctions Regulations 2019" after the March 2019 Sanctions Act, referring to the EU sanctions for Syria (EU No. 36/2012). It also specified the Panama-flagged Iranian tanker Grace 1 as a ship under those regulations. On 4 July, the ship was seized by British authorities while carrying out an off-port limited logistics stop in Gibraltar, on suspicion that the vessel was carrying oil to Syria in breach of European Union sanctions. A force of 30 Royal Marines boarded the ship from a helicopter and speedboat, accompanied by Royal Gibraltar Police officers and HM Customs Gibraltar officers. Four of the ship's crew, including the captain and chief officer, were arrested but subsequently released on bail without charge. Iran demanded the ship's release and denied that the vessel was violating sanctions, and an official of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps issued a threat to seize a British ship in retaliation. Iranian Leader Ali Khamenei described the incident as a British act of "piracy" which has been given a "legal appearance". Britain offered to release the ship in exchange for an Iranian guarantee that it would not proceed to the Syrian port of Baniyas to deliver oil to the refinery there. On 11 July, the Royal Navy frigate HMS Montrose foiled an Iranian attempt to capture the BP-owned British oil tanker British Heritage, as it transited through the Strait of Hormuz. Three boats believed to be from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps approached the tanker and tried to halt it, after which HMS Montrose, which had been shadowing the tanker, moved between the boats and the tanker and trained guns on the boats, warning them to back off. The Iranian boats then turned away. The Royal Navy subsequently deployed the destroyer HMS Duncan to the Persian Gulf to reinforce HMS Montrose.
On 14 July, a Panamanian-flagged oil tanker, MT Riah, which was operating in the United Arab Emirates, disappeared from ship tracking maps near Iran after crossing the Strait of Hormuz. Adding to the mystery, no entity claimed ownership of the tanker.
On 20 July, the British-flagged tanker Stena Impero was seized in a raid by Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces. Four small boats and a helicopter stopped the ship and Iranian commandos rappelled on board from the helicopter. The ship was taken to Bandar Abbas and its crew of 23 detained on board. On 4 September, Iran decided to free only seven crew members of the detained British tanker. A second British-owned and Liberian-flagged ship was also seized but later allowed to continue its journey. In a letter to the UN, Iran said the Stena Impero had collided with and damaged an Iranian vessel, and ignored warnings by Iranian authorities.
The ship's seizure sparked a diplomatic crisis between the United Kingdom and Iran. The British government condemned the seizure of the ship and demanded its release, warning of "serious consequences" if the tanker was not released. Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi visited Iran to negotiate the release of Stena Impero at the request of the British government. Iran confirmed that it seized the ship as retaliation over the British seizure of Grace 1 in Gibraltar and hinted that it would be willing to release Stena Impero in exchange for the release of Grace 1.
August 2019: Seizure of Iraqi tanker and Grace 1 controversy continues
On 4 August 2019, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard seized an Iraqi tanker for allegedly smuggling oil to other Arab Countries. The seven crew members on board were detained further heightening tensions in the Persian Gulf. It was just three days later that Britain and eventually Israel joined the Sentinel Program to protect oil tankers in the Persian Gulf.
On 15 August, Gibraltar released Grace 1 after receiving assurances the oil would not be sold to an EU sanctioned entity, and after rejecting a request from the United States Department of Justice to seize the ship. The Iranian government later said it had issued no assurances that the oil would not be delivered to Syria and reasserted its intention to continue supplying oil to the Arab nation. On 16 August, the Department of Justice issued a warrant in Washington, DC to seize Grace 1, the cargo of oil, and $995,000 on the grounds that the profit from the ship's voyage was intended to enrich the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which the US had previously designated a terrorist organization. On 18 August, Gibraltar announced that its Justice Ministry had rejected the US warrant, as U.S. sanctions against Iran did not apply in the European Union, and the ship, renamed Adrian Darya 1 and registered under the Iranian flag, was expected to sail imminently from Gibraltar.
After releasing the ship, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned the tanker and its captain and inputted them in the blacklist. Some days later, Brian Hook, the State Department point man on Iran, sent emails to the Indian captain of the ship and offered some million dollars in US cash to steer the Adrian Darya 1 to a country where it could be seized by United States Armed Forces; but he rejected these offers.
September 2019: Saudi Aramco attacks and release of Stena Impero
On 3 September, Iran announced that the oil tanker Adrian Darya-1 has delivered its cargo, defying the US threats. Satellite imagery had showed the tanker near Syria. On 9 September, Britain's foreign minister accused Iran of selling the oil that was carried in Adrian Darya to Assad's regime. Iran said the oil had been sold to a private company which is not an EU sanctioned entity, so its assurance to Gibraltar had not been breeched.
On 14 September, the 2019 Abqaiq–Khurais attack took place—a coordinated Cruise missile and drone attack that targeted the state-owned Saudi Aramco oil processing facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais in eastern Saudi Arabia. The Houthi movement in Yemen claimed responsibility, tying it to events surrounding the Saudi Arabian intervention in the Yemeni Civil War. However, claims made by some U.S. officials that the attacks originated in Iran, despite Iran's denial, have strained the current Persian Gulf crisis.
On 16 September 2019, Iran's Revolutionary Guards seized another vessel near the Iran's Greater Tunb island in the Persian Gulf. It was reported that the vessel was allegedly smuggling 250,000 litres of diesel fuel to the United Arab Emirates.
On 27 September 2019, the British oil tanker Stena Impero departed from Iranian waters after around two months in Iranian detention. The remainder of the ship's 23 crew members who were detained in Iran were released as well, with seven crew members already released on 4 September. On 28 September, Stena Impero, which was also able to transmit signals, docked at Port Rashid, Dubai. The same day, HMS Duncan returned to her homeport, Portsmouth naval base.
On 23 September 2019, the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani criticized the new U.S.-led coalition patrolling the region's waterways, and asked the western powers to leave the security of the Persian Gulf.
November 2019: IMSC launches operations
On 7 November 2019, the U.S.-led naval coalition International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC) launched official operations in Bahrain to protect the shipping lanes near the troubled Iranian territorial waters. The coalition opened its command center in the country, to ward off the perceived threat to the global oil supply.
December 2019: U.S. airstrikes on Iraqi militia and attack on Baghdad embassy
In early December, the Pentagon considered sending reinforcements to the Middle East to deal with escalating tensions due to attacks against international shipping through the Persian Gulf, a missile strike against a Saudi oil facility, violent crackdown of protests in Iran, and heightened Iranian activities in the region. The number of people dead in Iranian demonstrations remained disputed, though Iran has not released any official estimates. U.S. special representative for Iran Brian Hook announced that his country was offering $15 million for information concerning the whereabouts of Abdul Reza Shahalai, a senior Iranian commander accused of orchestrating numerous attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq and a foiled attempt to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States.
On 27 December, Iran, Russia, and China performed a four-day naval exercise in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Oman. The exercise was launched from Chabahar Port near Pakistan, and included the Chinese Type 051 destroyer Xining. The Russian Defense Ministry confirmed that it had deployed ships from the Baltic Fleet in its official newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda. According to Iranian government and military officials over its state news channel Press TV, the exercise was a response to U.S.–Saudi regional maneuvers and was meant to demonstrate that Iran was not isolated despite U.S. sanctions. In contrast, the spokesman of the Chinese Ministry of National Defense, Senior Colonel Wu Qian, claimed that the exercise was a "normal military exchange" unconnected to the international tensions.
On 27 December, K-1 Air Base in the Kirkuk Governorate was attacked with Katyusha rockets, killing several Iraqi Security Forces personnel, four U.S. soldiers, and a U.S. civilian military contractor. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned the attacks, blaming Iranian-backed Shi'ite Muslim militias. On 29 December, U.S. airstrikes targeted Kata'ib Hizbollah facilities in Iraq and Syria killing 25 militants and injuring at least 55 others. The U.S. Department of Defense said the operation was in retaliation for repeated attacks on Iraqi military bases hosting Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) coalition forces, particularly the K-1 Air Base attack. Kata'ib Hizbollah has denied responsibility for the attacks.
On 31 December, Iran-backed militiamen stormed the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, forcing American diplomats to evacuate to safe rooms. The militia later withdrew. An additional 100 U.S. Marines were sent to reinforce the Embassy. About 5,000 U.S. troops were present in Iraq to deal with what remained of ISIS and to assist the Iraqi military. Embassy personnel began packing their bags just in case.
Baghdad International Airport strike
A major flashpoint in the crisis occurred on 3 January 2020, when President Donald Trump approved the targeted killing of Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad, Iraq. Iraqi paramilitary leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was also killed in the drone attack. Various news accounts described the decision to eliminate Soleimani as being made by Trump at the urging of a few of his administration officials, and that his own military advisers were reportedly "stunned" by this decision. Analysts warned that Iran would retaliate. "From Iran's perspective, it is hard to imagine a more deliberately provocative act," said Robert Malley, the president of the think tank International Crisis Group. "And it is hard to imagine that Iran will not retaliate in a highly aggressive manner." In preparation for retaliatory attacks from Iran, the U.S. deployed an additional 3,000 ground troops to the Middle East, in addition to 14,000 already stationed there since May the previous year. President Trump defended the move, claiming in an interview with The Ingraham Angle on the Fox News Channel that Major General Soleimani was planning further attacks against four U.S. Embassies across the Middle East. This was later challenged by U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper in interviews on Face the Nation on CBS and State of the Union on CNN, who claimed that President Trump was not embellishing that there was an Iranian threat but that he had seen no evidence that U.S. embassies were to be targeted.
Amid international fears of a direct confrontation between the two nations, on 4 January, President Trump warned Iran against attacking U.S. assets or any Americans in the region. He threatened that in the event of an Iranian attack, the U.S. would target 52 Iranian sites and would strike "very fast and very hard". The White House also officially notified the U.S. congress about the killing of Qassem Soleimani, in accordance with the 1973 War Powers Resolution, a day after the fact. Meanwhile, thousands of people in 70 cities across the U.S. participated in antiwar demonstrations against a new conflict in the Middle East. On the same day, the UK sent two warships, HMS Montrose and HMS Defender, to the Persian Gulf to protect their ships and citizens. The Royal Navy was deployed to accompany British-flagged ships through the Strait of Hormuz.
Shortly after the Soleimani drone strike, several planes with U.S. service members took off from bases in the eastern United States. The following day, the U.S. Department of Defense announced the deployment of 3,500 members of the 82nd Airborne Division to the region, one of the largest rapid deployments in decades. Defense officials said the deployment was not directly related to the airstrike which killed Soleimani, but was instead a "precautionary action in response to increased threat levels against U.S. personnel and facilities".
On 5 January, Iran announced that it would not continue to abide by the limitations mentioned in the 2015 nuclear deal. It also demanded the Iraqi parliament to get rid of the American presence in their country. The Iraqi parliament passed a resolution to expel all foreign, particularly U.S., troops from Iraqi territory. In response, Donald Trump threatened to impose sanctions on Iraq "like they've never seen before". As the funeral procession for Soleimani and al-Muhandis was ongoing in Baghdad, several rockets hit near the U.S. embassy and the Balad Air Base without any casualties. Meanwhile, an Iranian official reportedly placed an $80 million bounty on Trump's head, calling him a "yellow-haired lunatic"; the 80 million reportedly represents Iran's population of 80 million people. An Iranian government statement on state television said "If the sanctions are lifted ... the Islamic Republic is ready to return to its obligations."
On January 5, the Iraqi Parliament passed a resolution calling on the complete withdrawal of the remaining 5,200 U.S. Armed Forces personnel in Iraq through a vote boycotted by Sunni and Kurdish representatives. The media initially reported that the U.S. would comply with the resolution after a draft letter from Brigadier General William H. Seely III addressed to the Iraqi Defense Ministry emerged claiming as such, but Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark A. Milley and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper soon clarified that the letter had been sent in error and that the U.S. Armed Forces would not withdraw from Iraq. On January 10, Acting Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi placed a telephone call to Secretary of State Pompeo demanding that the U.S. send a delegation "to prepare a mechanism to carry out the parliament's resolution regarding the withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq.” Secretary Pompeo rejected Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi's requests. Shortly afterwards Iraq's highest-ranking Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, condemned the U.S.–Iran crisis.
Meanwhile, the legality of the Baghdad Airport strike was brought into question in the U.S. and abroad. The U.S. congress, including the Gang of Eight, was not consulted before the attack and some congressmembers sought to restrict the president's ability to attack Iran. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer condemned the strike, and declared that Congress needed to be consulted in advance for any such military actions. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced she would introduce a resolution to limit Trump's ability to take actions against Iran. Congressional Democrats also announced that the House of Representatives would vote on legislation prohibiting offensive actions against Iran without prior consultation with and approval by Congress.
IRGC ballistic missile attack and new sanctions
On 8 January 2020, Iraq's Al Asad Airbase, which was hosting U.S. soldiers, was attacked with ballistic missiles as a part of Iran's "Operation Martyr Soleimani," named for general Qasem Soleimani. During the attack, the IRGC declared that "fierce revenge by the Revolutionary Guards had begun." It was also reported that the airbase in Irbil, Kurdistan was attacked as well. In the fallout of the missile attacks, it emerged that they were largely a feigned attack, in which U.S. intelligence and Iraqi forces knew that an attack was forthcoming and necessary precautions were taken. According to Iranian claim U.S suffered 80 casualties while U.S. officials claimed that no Iraqis or Americans were harmed and only material damage was done to the bases. Donald Trump, hours after the attacks, confirmed no U.S. casualties and urged rapprochement. During his White House address, Trump ruled out a direct military response to the base attacks, urged NATO to be more involved in regional affairs, announced new sanctions on Iran, demanded a new Iran nuclear deal be arranged, and affirmed his position that Iran could not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons. Ayatollah Khamenei rejected the possibility of talks at any level between U.S. and Iranian officials and demanded that the U.S. return to the JCPOA.
Accidental downing of Ukrainian passenger plane
Hours later following the ballistic missile attacks, Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 crashed just after taking off from Tehran International Airport, killing all 176 passengers and crew. An investigation was launched to decipher the reason for the crash. On 9 January, U.S. officials said they believe the aircraft had been shot down in error by an Iranian Tor missile, based on evidence from reconnaissance satellite imagery and radar data. Iranian officials initially denied the allegations but, on 11 January, admitted to accidentally shooting down the plane. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urged deescalation. Prime Minister Trudeau claimed that the United States' escalation of the conflict was partially to blame for the accident, and the incident slightly worsened Canada–United States relations.  The airline shoot-down also reignited anti-government protests within Iran that had previously become dormant in the massive public outcry against the death of Soleimani.
On January 8, Representative Elissa Slotkin sponsored a concurrent resolution in the U.S. House of Representatives ordering President Trump to halt further military action against Iran without congressional approval under the War Powers Resolution. On January 10, the House ratified the resolution by a vote of 224-194. The vote was mostly conducted among party lines, with eight Democrats opposing the resolution and three Republicans favoring it. The constitutionality of the resolution is unclear since the U.S. Supreme Court limited legislative veto with the Immigration and Naturalization Service v. Chadha decision in 1983 in a majority opinion written by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger. Defense Secretary Esper argued that the President has full authority to attack Iran in response to attacks by Iraqi proxy militias under the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq and Article II of the Constitution, and has discouraged Congress from adopting the resolution.
On 10 January, the Trump administration imposed new economic sanctions on Iran that targeted the country's metals industry and eight senior officials that were involved in the prior missile attacks. According to U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, the sanctions would affect "billions" in revenue. The U.S. also warned Iraq that it would freeze its account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York if it continued its threat to withdraw American troops, which would prevent the Iraqi government from accessing oil revenues, damage the Iraqi economy, and devalue the Iraqi dinar.
On 12 January, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah called for Iran's allies in the Axis of Resistance—including Iran, the Syrian Arab Republic, Hezbollah, the Popular Mobilization Forces, and the Houthi movement in Yemen—to intensify its military campaigns against the U.S. to expel U.S. forces from the Middle East. During a state visit by Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani of Qatar to Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei called for regional cooperation against the U.S. Following the discussions between Qatar's ruler and Iranian President, Sheikh Tamim concluded that de-escalation and dialogue were the only means to resolve the regional crises. In response to the increased tensions, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and many states released advisories warning of Iranian cyberattackss, while the Texas Department of Information Resources said Iranian cyberattacks had reached a rate of 10,000 per minute.
In response to Iran's violations of the 2015 nuclear deal, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany threatened to activate the deal's dispute mechanism reenacting European Union and United Nations sanctions on Iran, a move supported by the U.S. State Department. In response, the Iranian Foreign Ministry threatened a "serious and strong response", and President Rouhani made a televised Cabinet address on Iranian state television directly threatening European troops while blaming U.S. escalation for the crisis. Soon afterwards, Rouhani claimed that the country was enriching uranium at a higher rate per day than before the ratification of the deal, though experts questioned the logistical reality of that claim.
On 17 January, ayatollah Khamenei personally led Friday prayers in Tehran for the first time in eight years. During his sermon, Khamenei lamented the shootdown of the Ukrainian jetliner, sought to present the image that the Islamic republic was unified despite protests and the gulf crisis, and lashed out at the UK, France, and Germany, referring to them as "servants" of the "villainous" United States. Khamenei denounced the Trump administration as "clowns" and insisted that the "real punishment" for General Soleimani's assassination would be forcing American forces out of the Middle East. In response, Trump urged Iranian leadership to stop "killing" Iranian protesters and that it "should abandon terror and Make Iran Great Again!"
Iran and allies
The U.S. began a build up of its military presence in the region to deter what it regards as a planned campaign of belligerency by Iran and its non-state allies to attack American forces and interests in the gulf and Iraq. PMF and Kata'ib Hezbollah were targeted by US airstrikes, claiming their proxy belligerent role on the orders of Iran. In June 2019, Iran shot down an American RQ-4A surveillance drone, sharply increasing tensions and nearly resulting in an armed confrontation.
International Maritime Security Construct
The International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC), formerly known as Operation Sentinel or the Sentinel Program, is a multinational maritime effort established by the U.S. to ensure gulf security following Iranian seizures of commercial tankers.
Following Iran's shoot-down of a U.S. surveillance drone on 20 June 2019, the U.S. bolstered its efforts to establish a coalition to deter Iranian attacks in the Persian Gulf. On 19 July, U.S. Central Command acknowledged what it called Operation Sentinel which had the stated goal of de-escalating tensions and promoting maritime stability in international waters "throughout the Persian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait (BAM) and the Gulf of Oman." Sentinel called for participating nations to provide escorts to their flagged commercial vessels in the region and for coordinating surveillance capabilities. U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper later commented on the nature of the operation, stating "My view is ... we would want to prevent the Iranians seizing or stopping a ship, certainly, for any arbitrary reason whatsoever". Some U.S. allies, particularly European allies, were reportedly reticent towards the Sentinel Program due to qualms associated with signing on to a U.S.-led naval effort that could potentially drag them into a confrontation with Iran; this was coupled with reports of a potential European-led naval security effort separate from the U.S. By September 2019, the U.S. had "rebranded" Operation Sentinel as the "International Maritime Security Construct," reportedly to attract more participation.
In early August 2019, the United Kingdom agreed to join the U.S. in its maritime program, abandoning the idea of a European-led naval protection force. On 21 August, Australia announced it would join the U.S.-led naval coalition, with plans to deploy a P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft to the Middle East for one month before the end of 2019, a frigate in January 2020 for six months, and Australian Defence Forces personnel to the IMSC headquarters in Bahrain.
On 16 September, IMSC members held a Main Planning Conference aboard RFA Cardigan Bay along with representatives from 25 additional countries where they reaffirmed commitments to the operation and discussed their efforts to enhance maritime security throughout key waterways in the region. Saudi Arabia joined the coalition on 18 September and the United Arab Emirates joined on 20 September.
- United States (Leader)
- Bahrain (Headquarters)
- United Kingdom
- Saudi Arabia
- United Arab Emirates
Allies and supporters
Japan announced on 18 October 2019, that it would not join the IMSC but would instead send its own separate naval assets to the region to guard merchant vessels "related to Japan" while still closely cooperating with the U.S. A senior Japanese official said that the contingency would likely include warships and aircraft that will patrol the Gulf of Oman, the Northern Arabian Sea and other regional waters.
- China Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said regarding the ongoing situation between the U.S. and Iran, "China resolutely opposes the U.S. implementation of unilateral sanctions and so-called 'long arm jurisdiction', understands the current situation and concerns of the Iranian side, and supports the Iranian side to safeguard its legitimate rights and interests."
- France French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said regarding the nation's stance on tensions between the U.S. and Iran, that France does not need American approval to negotiate with Iran, and criticized Trump's approach on the tensions alongside other French diplomats calling it "Twitter Diplomacy".
- India On 26 September 2019, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with Iranian President Rouhani at the UN General Assembly in New York City, the Indian government said about the meeting that Modi had "reiterated India's support for giving priority to diplomacy, dialogue and confidence-building in the interest of maintaining peace, security and stability in the Gulf region".
- Oman The Omani Foreign Ministry released a statement calling upon Iran to release the British oil tanker Stena Impero, which was captured by Iran in response to the British capture of an Iranian tanker in Gibraltar. The ministry also called upon Iran and the United Kingdom to resolve the dispute with diplomacy.
- Pakistan Pakistan's Foreign Office strongly condemned the drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities, reiterating its full support and solidarity to Saudi Arabia against any threat to its security and territorial integrity. "Such acts to sabotage and disrupt commercial activities causing fear and terror cannot be condoned we hopes that such attacks will not be repeated given the potential damage they can cause to the existing peaceful environment in the region." On 17 September, Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan phoned Saudi crown prince, Mohammad Bin Salman condemns attack on oil facilities, during the conversation with MBS vowed to full support and solidarity with the brotherly country Kingdom of Saudi Arabia against any terrorist attack and reiterated that Pakistan will stand with Saudi Arabia in case of any threat to sanctity or security of Harmain Shareefain. Following the targeted killing of Qasem Soleimani Pakistan, Pakistanu Army spokesman announced that "Pakistan will not allow their soil to be used against any of the conflicting parties". Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Medmood also indicated that "Pakistan will not take sides in the escalating confrontation between neighboring Iran and the United States".
- Russia Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov questioned American claims about the shoot down of an Iranian drone, saying the evidence was vague, and saying the US had no "intelligent data" to prove the drone was Iranian.
- Saudi Arabia Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman said: "We do not want a war in the region ... But we won't hesitate to deal with any threat to our people, our sovereignty, our territorial integrity and our vital interests."
- United Arab Emirates UAE officials met with their Iranian counter-parts including Iran's border police force and its head General Qasem Rezaee to discuss naval traffic in the Strait of Hormuz. According to Iranian state run media, after the meeting the head of the UAE's coast guard was quoted as saying "the intervention of some governments on the front lines of navigations is causing problems in a region that has good relations," while adding "we need to establish security in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman."
- United States In response to Gibraltar, the U.S. released the Iranian oil tanker Grace 1, which was suspected to be headed towards Syria with Iranian oil. The U.S. has threatened to sanction anyone who has dealings with Grace 1 and also expressed disappointment with the United Kingdom for allowing the ship to be released.
- Mullah Krekar, the former leader of the Iraq-based insurgent group Ansar al-Islam, said that in a war between the U.S. and Iran, should the crisis evolve into one, he would support Iran—it would be similar to supporting Hezbollah in a war against Israel.
- Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shiite cleric and leader of Peace Companies, in response to the ongoing tensions posted on Twitter, "War between Iran and the U.S. will be an end of Iraq," and in another instance said, "Any party that would drag Iraq into the war and turn it into a scene for conflict will be an enemy to the Iraqi people," and further stated his view of excluding Iraq from a potential war between the U.S. and Iran saying, "I'm against dragging Iraq into this war and making it a scene for the Iranian-U.S. conflict"
- In ISIL's weekly online newspaper al-Naba the group's stance on the tensions between the U.S. and Iran was published, the group said it equally opposes both sides and criticized al-Qaeda for its alleged reliance on Iran and stated had it not been for al-Qaeda's past orders not to attack Iran while ISIL was part of al-Qaeda it would have attacked Iran earlier, and that ISIL would carry out attacks against the U.S. and Iran equally, the article ended with a supplication asking God to incite a war between Iran and the U.S. so it could bring victory for ISIL.
- Gibraltar Gibraltar refused US requests to hold an Iranian oil tanker stating it would contradict the law of the European Union, In a statement the government said, "The EU sanctions regime against Iran—which is applicable in Gibraltar—is much narrower than that applicable in the U.S.," adding "The Gibraltar Central Authority is unable seek an Order of the Supreme Court of Gibraltar to provide the restraining assistance required by the United States of America."
- On 21 September 2019, the Syrian National Coalition which represents the Syrian Opposition and Syrian Interim Government released a statement after the Abqaiq–Khurais attack saying: "The Syrian National Coalition once again warns of the dangers of the inaction towards Iran's actions in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen and the wars it manages in the region directly or indirectly as well as its latest aggression against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia." Adding "The coalition reaffirms it will continue to stand by the leadership and people of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in its fight against terrorism as it extends its thanks and appreciation for the Kingdom's efforts and positions in support of the rights of the Syrian people and their legitimate demands."
- On the 18th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, al-Qaeda's leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a video commemorating the attacks claimed that America had empowered Iran and that the two work together, saying, "It is ironic that Shi'a militias were fighting in Iraq against the self-proclaimed Caliph, [Islamic State leader] Ibrahim al-Badri, with American air and artillery cover, and under the leadership and planning of American advisors. From the battlefield ..." adding "The point is that Iran has an understanding with the Americans in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. It only differs with them on the returns of this arrangement. At times it signs accords with them; when it is unsuitable for them, it continues its policy of blackmail."
- Related issues
- Iraqi Civil War (2014–2017)
- 2019–20 Iranian protests
- Syrian Civil War
- Yemeni Civil War (2015–present)
- Regional conflicts
- Iran–Iraq War (1980-1988)
- Gulf War (1990-1991)
- Iraq War (2003)
- List of modern conflicts in the Middle East
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Chief Minister of Gibraltar Fabian Picardo: We did not have an undertaking that the oil would not end up in Syria. We had an undertaking from the Iranian government that they would not sell the oil to any EU sanctioned entity, that means not just Syria, it means even entities, some of them in Iran and subject to EU sanctions. Now what we have heard from the Iranian ambassador is that the National Iranian Oil Company, who are the ones who asserted ownership of the vessel and the oil, did not in fact sell the oil or indeed the vessel to any sanctioned EU entity ... [the oil] has ended up in Syria, but that is not to say that there has been a breech of the undertaking. Those too we need to look at in terms of substance but we need to look at in terms of form also ... It wasn't the court that made the decision, it was the Government of Gibraltar ... because I was required under the regulations to despecify the vessel and therefore the court injunction fell away, and the reason I was required to despecify the vessel ... was that the only reason we had to continue the detention of the vessel was whilst we had the suspicion that it was going to be sold to an EU sanctioned entity. Once we had a written undertaking from a state recognised by the United Nations, in a note verbale provided to us directly, that the oil was not going to be provided to an EU sanctioned entity we actually had no jurisdiction to keep it.
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