The showdown between Trump and Iran, explained in 60 seconds

qassem soleimani iran us

ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images

Iranians tear up a US flag during a demonstration in Tehran on January 3, 2020 following the killing of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Major General Qasem Soleimani in a US strike on his convoy at Baghdad international airport. - Iran warned of "severe revenge" and said arch-enemy the United States bore responsibility for the consequences after killing one of its top commanders, Qasem Soleimani, in a strike outside Baghdad airport.

  • President Donald Trump's order to kill Iran's top general has sparked fears of war.
  • Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani's assassination came after a series of escalating attacks between Iran and the US.
  • Both Iran and Trump have a history of leveling serious threats without following through, and no one can say with certainty what happens next.

Less than a week into 2020, President Donald Trump ordered a drone strike that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, marking one of the most provocative moves either country has taken in a decades-long standoff.

Soleimani's assassination was not an isolated event, however, and came after a series of escalatory actions.

Here's what's been going on:

In May 2018, Trump withdrew the US from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, a landmark agreement orchestrated by the Obama administration meant to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Relations between Washington and Tehran have deteriorated ever since.

The Trump administration launched in a "maximum pressure" campaign that aimed to squeeze Iran into negotiating a more stringent version of the 2015 nuclear deal with crippling economic sanctions. This strategy has seen little to no success.

Last summer, as the US deployed military assets to the Middle East, there were attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf region that the US blamed on Iran, which denied responsibility.

Amid all of this, Iran shot down a US drone in June. Trump nearly responded with a retaliatory military strike, but pulled back at the last minute.

In September, there were attacks on Saudi oil fields that the US blamed on Iran, ratcheting up tensions even more and temporarily throwing the global oil industry into turmoil.

But things really escalated in late December when an Iran-backed militia in Iraq staged attacks that resulted in the death of an American contractor and injured several US service members. The US responded with air strikes that killed dozens of the militia members, which prompted a violent protest at the US Embassy in Baghdad.

Subsequently, on January 3, Trump gave the order for the strike that killed Soleimani as well as a powerful Iraqi militia leader. The Trump administration has said the strike was meant to stop a war and was in response to intelligence point to an "imminent" attack, but has not publicly disclosed that intelligence.

soleimani funeral mourners

Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

Iranian mourners hold posters of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Tehran on January 6, 2020.

Soleimani does not have a direct equivalent in the US political system, but he was Iran's most important military leader and widely considered the second most powerful figure in the country after Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Iran has vowed to enact "severe revenge" and withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal as Trump has warned any retaliation will be met by the US striking 52 Iranian targets. Trump said the US would hit "Iranian culture" sites, which could amount to a war crime, but his advisers have undermined him on this.

Both Trump and Iran have a history of making serious threats without following up on them, and no one can say with certainty what happens next.

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