Timeline of Tensions Between Trump and Tehran

May 8, 2019

Donald Trump’s election produced dramatic change in U.S. policy in 2017. As a candidate, he had blasted the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and six world powers as “the worst deal ever negotiated.” If elected, Trump said his number-one priority would be to dismantle the deal.

Trump and Rouhani
President Donald Trump and President Hassan Rouhani

Since taking office, the Trump administration has taken an increasingly aggressive posture toward Iran. The tone was set less than two weeks into Trump’s presidency when then-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn responded to an Iranian missile test. “The Obama Administration failed to respond adequately to Tehran’s malign actions—including weapons transfers, support for terrorism, and other violations of international norms,” he said. “As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice.” The following is a timeline of U.S.-Iran relations since Trump took office. 


Jan. 27 – President Trump issued an executive order banning citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries — Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, and Yemen — from entering the United States for 90 days. Iranian leaders reacted angrily. The ban is “a clear insult to the Islamic world, and especially the great nation of Iran,” said Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. It will be “a great gift to extremists and their supporters.”


Feb. 1 – President Trump’s national security advisor, Michael Flynn, officially put Iran “on notice” after a ballistic missile test and an attack on a Saudi naval vessel by Houthi militants in Yemen supported by Tehran. On February 3, the Trump administration announced new sanctions targeting individuals and companies linked to Iran’s ballistic missile program. A dozen companies and 13 individuals were designated in retaliation for a January 2017 missile test and Houthi attack on a Saudi warship.


Feb. 3 – The U.S. Treasury announced new sanctions on 13 individuals and 12 entities for supporting Iran’s ballistic missile program and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).


Feb. 7 – Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei weighed in on Trump’s actions in an address to air force commanders. He thanked Trump for revealing the “true face” of the United States. “What we have been saying, for over thirty years, about political, economic, moral, and social corruption within the U.S. ruling establishment, he came out and exposed during the election campaigns and after the elections,” said Khamenei.

March 17 – The State Department sanctioned two Bahrainis with ties to Iran for supporting terrorism. “Today’s actions follow a recent increase in militant attacks in Bahrain, where Iran has provided weapons, funding, and training to militants. This marks yet another step in our continued effort to aggressively target Iran’s destabilizing and terrorism-related activities in the region,” read a statement. Iran said the claims were bogus.

March 21 – The United States imposed sanctions on 30 foreign entities and individuals for violations of the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act. Eleven of the entities and individuals received sanctions for transfers on behalf of Iran’s ballistic missile program. Iran responded five days later with sanctions on 15 American businesses. Tehran blacklisted companies that have done business with the Israeli military or that were involved with Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

March 22 – President Trump issued his first Nowruz message. Only one out of five paragraphs was directed at the Iranian people. “To the Iranian people and all those around the world celebrating Nowruz: On behalf of the American people, I wish you freedom, dignity, and wealth,” read the statement. It notably lacked any reference to Iran’s government.

April 13 – The U.S. Treasury sanctioned the Tehran Prison Organization and Sohrab Soleimani, a senior official within Iran’s State Prison Organization. The announcement cited an April 2014 incident at the infamous Evin Prison, when dozens of security guards and prison officials attacked political prisoners in Ward 350 for several hours. At least 30 were injured; some were placed in solitary confinement without medical treatment. Soleimani was the head of the Tehran Prisons Organization at the time. He is also the brother of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Qods Force, according to the White House.

April 18 – The Trump administration acknowledged that Iran was complying with the nuclear deal. By law, the administration must notify Congress every 90 days whether Iran is fulfilling its commitments. At the same time, the administration announced the launch of an interagency review to determine whether sanctions relief for Iran, as part of the nuclear deal, is vital to U.S. national security interests. “Notwithstanding, Iran remains a leading state sponsor of terror through many platforms and methods,” wrote Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in a letter to Congress.

Foreign Minister Zarif shot back with a tweet implying that the United States had not been living up to its obligations under the deal. In a statement, he accused Washington of supporting militant extremists, including al Qaeda’ affiliate in Syria. He emphasized that Iran remained committed to its obligations under the JCPOA, despite “the malign behavior of the U.S. Government.”


April 20 – The Guardian Council announced the approved candidates for the 2017 presidential election. They included incumbent President Rouhani, hardliner Ebrahim Raisi, and Mayor of Tehran Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf. Former President Ahmadinejad, who had registered against the will of Supreme Leader Khamenei, was the most prominent among the rejected candidates. On May 19, President Rouhani was reelected over hardliner Ebrahim Raisi. He secured 57 percent of the vote in four-way contest, which was widely considered a strong endorsement of his agenda. Rouhani’s campaign emphasized loosening social and political controls and attracting foreign investment. On May 29Iran held elections for city and town councils nationwide. Reformist candidates won a decisive victory nationally, outperforming conservative candidates.

May 17 – The Trump Administration certified Iranian compliance with the JCPOA and continued to waive nuclear-related sanctions. The administration, however, it simultaneously announced new sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile program.

Iran countered with sanctions on nine American individuals and firms involved with Israeli and/or U.S. businesses, military and intelligence. For example, it alleged that Booz Allen Hamilton’s contractors were affiliated with the CIA and had conducted security operations against the Islamic Republic. “Iran condemns America's unacceptable ill will in its effort to undermine the positive outcome of Tehran's commitment to implement the nuclear deal by adding individuals to its list of unilateral and illegal sanctions,” said Foreign Ministry Spokesman Qasemi.

May 21 – President Trump visited two of Iran’s top regional rivals, Saudi Arabia and Israel, on his first trip abroad as president. He accused Tehran of fueling “the fires of sectarian conflict and terror” in an address in Riyadh to leaders of 50 Muslim countries.


Iranian President Rouhani mocked Trump’s trip and his signing of a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. The visit was “just a show” that lacked “political and practical value,” he said. Rouhani called out Riyadh monarchical government. The kingdom “has never seen a ballot box,” he quipped. “Buying arms or building weapons won't make a country powerful.” Rouhani also alluded to the involvement of 15 Saudi citizens in the plotting of the September 11 attacks. “I do not think the American people are ready to trade the lives they lost on September 11 with billions of dollars gained through weapons sales.”

June 7 – Five gunmen and suicide bombers attacked Iran’s parliament and the mausoleum shrine of late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. ISIS claimed responsibility for both terrorist attacks, which were the first in Tehran in more than a decade. At least 17 were killed and 52 were injured. On June 18, Iran launched missiles at ISIS targets in Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria following terrorist attacks that targeted Tehran.

June 20 – U.S. forces shot down two Iranian-made drones in Syria, raising the threat of U.S. military confrontation with pro-regime forces there. Since 2011, Iran has provided key logistical, technical and financial support to the Assad government, including military advisors. One of the drones dropped a dud munition, which the U.S. forces perceived as a “show of force,” according to a defense official. It was reportedly the first time that pro-regime forces had fired on the U.S.-led coalition.

The U.S.-led coalition to defeat ISIS released a statement indicating it was not looking for a new confrontation. “The Coalition does not seek to fight Syrian regime, Russian, or pro-regime forces partnered with them, but will not hesitate to defend Coalition or partner forces from any threat,” it read.

July 17 – The Trump administration certified Iranian compliance with its JCPOA obligations. But it simultaneously announced new sanctions on 18 entities and individuals for supporting Iran’s ballistic missile program, military procurement or IRGC, and an Iran-based translational criminal organization.

Iran’s foreign ministry denounced the sanctions as “contemptible and worthless” and warned of reciprocal action. “Surely, if the Americans seek to apply sanctions against us under whatever title or pretext, the great nation of Iran would aptly respond to them,” said President Rouhani.

Iran’s judiciary also announced that an American graduate student had been sentenced to 10 years in prison for spying. The student was later identified as 37-year-old Xiyue Wang, a Chinese-born doctoral candidate at Princeton University. He was arrested in August 2016 while conducting research in Iran on the administrative and cultural history of the late Qajar dynasty for his doctoral dissertation.


Jul. 22 – Iran reportedly began mass production of the new Sayyad-3 missile used in missile shield systems. The missile had an estimated range of 120 kilometers and was designed to target incoming aircraft and missiles. On July 27, Iran announced that it had successfully launched a Simorgh space-launch vehicle (or SLV). The Simorgh was Iran’s most advanced satellite-carrying rocket. The United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany, however, issued a joint statement condemning the Simorgh launch: “Iran has again demonstrated activity inconsistent with U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231.”

July 28 – The Treasury Department imposed new sanctions on six entities with connections to Iran’s ballistic missile program. In response, Tehran formally complained to the Joint Commission overseeing the nuclear deal that the new sanctions breached the agreement. “Iran's JCPOA supervisory body assessed the new U.S. sanctions and decided that they contradict parts of the nuclear deal,” said Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani. 

Aug. 2 – Trump signed the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, a bipartisan bill that imposed sanctions on Iran and Russia. It also included a provision known as the Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act of 2017 that directed the president to impose sanctions on Iran for its ballistic missile and any weapons of mass destruction programs, the sale or transfer to Iran of military equipment or related technical or financial assistance, and the IRGC. It also increased the President’s ability to sanction individuals connected to North Korea. 

Iran’s leaders condemned the move. Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi said it violated the nuclear deal. “The Americans should know that they will be harmed more by such moves, as such acts will isolate them in the world,” warned President Hassan Rouhani. 

Aug. 8 – An Iranian drone shadowed the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier and also came dangerously close to an F-18 fighter jet. The plane was forced to take evasive action after the drone ignored repeated radio warnings.

Sep. 14 – The United States extended some sanctions relief guaranteed Iran as part of the nuclear deal. But on the same day, the Treasury Department sanctioned 11 entities or individuals for supporting Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps or networks responsible for cyber-attacks against the United States. 

Sep. 19 – In his first address to the U.N. General Assembly, President Trump called on the world to join the United States “in demanding that Iran’s government end its pursuit of death and destruction.” Trump blasted Iran for supporting terror and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Trump also warned that the United States cannot abide by the nuclear deal “if it provides cover for the eventual construction of a nuclear program.”

In his own U.N. address, the next day, President Rouhani criticized President Trump for both the substance and tenor of his remarks. “The ignorant, absurd and hateful rhetoric, filled with ridiculously baseless allegations, that was uttered before this august body yesterday, was not only unfit to be heard at the United Nations - which was established to promote peace and respect between nations - but indeed contradicted the demands of our nations from this world body to bring governments together to combat war and terror.” Rouhani also seemed to reference Trump when he said that it would be a pity if the nuclear deal “were to be destroyed by ‘rogue’ newcomers to the world of politics.” 

Sep. 20 – E.U. foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini chaired a ministerial meeting on implementation of the nuclear deal. Foreign ministers from all of the countries party to the agreement —China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Iran — attended. After the gathering, Secretary of State Tillerson told reporters that it was “a good opportunity to meet, shake hands” with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. “The tone was very matter-of-fact, there was no yelling.” He added, jokingly, “We didn’t throw shoes at one another.” But Tillerson also emphasized that Washington and Tehran see the nuclear deal very differently. 

Sep. 24 – Trump announced new travel restrictions on certain foreigners from Chad, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen, a revised version of his controversial earlier ban. Iranian leaders condemned the policy as offensive.

Oct. 13 – President Trump decertified Iranian compliance with the nuclear agreement and outlined a new policy for countering the Islamic Republic. “I am directing my administration to work closely with Congress and our allies to address the deal’s many serious flaws so that the Iranian regime can never threaten the world with nuclear weapons,” he said. Trump authored the Treasury Department to further sanction the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. He stopped short, however, of re-imposing sanctions lifted as part of the JCPOA.

The moves prompted an angry reaction from Tehran. “What was heard today from US officials was nothing but the repetition of incorrect words, false accusations and insults that have been repeatedly said during the past 40 years,” Rouhani said in a fiery televised address to the nation. He pledged to strengthen Iran’s defenses despite the new sanctions on the IRGC. Rouhani argued that Trump was wrong about being able to unilaterally revoke the JCPOA. “How can a president alone cancel a treaty that is a multilateral and in one sense, international document, as it has been approved in the United Nations?” Rouhani said, however, that Iran would remain committed to the JCPOA as long as it served its national interests. 

Nov. 22 – Presidents Putin, Erdogan, and Rouhani met in Sochi to discuss cooperation between Russia, Turkey, and Iran on Syria. Putin won Turkish and Iranian support for a Russian-led peace process.

Dec. 2 – Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo confirmed Iranian news reports that he had sent a letter to the commander of the Qods Force, Major General Qassem Soleimani. Soleimani reportedly didn’t open the letter. “It didn't break my heart, to be honest with you,” Pompeo told an audience at the Reagan National Defense Forum. “What we were communicating to him in that letter was that we will hold he and Iran accountable for any attacks on American interests in Iraq by forces that are under their control.” 

Dec. 14 – The United States presented evidence of Iranian support for Houthi militants in Yemen in violation of U.N. resolutions. The evidence included a drone, an anti-tank weapon, and a short-range ballistic missile, all of which the United States claimed to be Iranian-made and supplied. On November 29, 2018, the United States unveiled missiles, rockets, drones and other equipment, some of which had been transferred to the Houthis in Yemen or the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Nikki Haley at a press conference

Dec. 18 – President Trump published his first National Security Strategy. The strategy described Iran one of the biggest threats to the United States and the Middle East’s stability: “Iran, the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, has taken advantage of instability to expand its influence through partners and proxies, weapon proliferation, and funding. It continues to develop more capable ballistic missiles and intelligence capabilities, and it undertakes malicious cyber activities. These activities have continued unabated since the 2015 nuclear deal. Iran continues to perpetuate the cycle of violence in the region, causing grievous harm to civilian populations.”



Jan. 12 – President Trump waived nuclear-related sanctions against Iran for the third time, in compliance with U.S. obligations under the JCPOA. “I am waiving the application of certain nuclear sanctions, but only in order to secure our European allies’ agreement to fix the terrible flaws of the Iran nuclear deal,” he said. Trump also warned that he would withdraw from the deal if he judged that an agreement is not within reach. On the same day, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned 14 individuals, including Iran’s judiciary chief, for human rights abuses and supporting weapons proliferation.

March 19 – President Trump issued his second Nowruz message. He accused the IRGC of supporting terrorism, environmental mismanagement, and suppressing freedom of expression and access to information. “Despite the oppression they face, Iranians are fighting to reclaim their rights. They long for a springtime of hope, and the United States stands with the Iranian people in their aspirations to connect to the wider world and have a responsible and accountable government that truly serves their nation’s interests,” said Trump.

March 23The United States issued sanctions and criminal indictments against an Iranian hacker network that targeted hundreds of U.S. and foreign universities, dozens of U.S. companies and government agencies and the United Nations. The Justice Department indicted nine Iranians for conducting a massive cyber theft campaign on behalf of the IRGC. The Treasury sanctioned one Iranian entity and 10 individuals for theft of intellectual property and data.

April 7-9 – In a major setback with potential political fallout, the rial lost 18 percent of its value on the free market between April 7 and April 9. It hit an all-time low against the dollar, which was reportedly being traded for 62,000 rials on the free market. The official rate—set by the Central Bank of Iran—was 37,830 rials. In response, the government decided to finally unify the free market exchange rate and the official exchange rate—at 42,000 rials to the dollar.

April 30 – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel obtained some 100,000 secret files proving that Iran lied about never having a nuclear weapons program. He alleged that Tehran worked to “expand its nuclear weapons know-how for future use” even after the 2015 nuclear accord. Netanyahu presented maps, charts, photographs, and videos allegedly detailing Project Amad, which was to design, produce and test nuclear weapons. The existence of Iran’s covert nuclear weapons program had been public knowledge for more than a decade however.

May 1 – A U.S. federal judge from the Southern District of New York ruled Iran was liable for the 9/11 attacks and was required to pay $6 billion to the families of those killed. The judge issued a default judgment signaling that Iran did not contest the case in court.

May 8 – President Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA and re-imposition of sanctions on Iran. Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia moved to salvage the accord. Iran said it intended to adhere to the deal if its economic benefits were guaranteed. Non-party states with significant trade interests in Iran, such as Turkey and India, said they would comply only with U.N. sanctions. Foreign companies began withdrawing from Iran rather than risk running afoul of U.S. sanctions. On May 16, Total signaled its intention to withdraw from the South Pars natural gas field development, a $2 billion project, unless it received a sanctions waiver from the U.S. government. Chinese firms were reportedly ready to replace Total. On May 18, the European Commission announced four measures to salvage the JCPOA. They included launching a process to activate the Blocking Statute, which would forbid E.U. persons from complying with U.S. extraterritorial sanctions, allow companies to recover damages incurred by sanctions from the sanctioning party, and nullify foreign court judgments in the European Union.

May 15 – The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned four individuals and one bank for moving millions of dollars on behalf of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods Force (IRGC-QF) to the Lebanese militia and political movement Hezbollah.

May 21 – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo laid out 12 requirements for a new nuclear deal with Iran: “We’re open to new steps with not only our allies and partners, but with Iran as well. But only if Iran is willing to make major changes,” he said. The demands called on Iran to stop enriching uranium, end its proliferation of ballistic missiles, and end support to terrorist groups, including Hezbollah and Hamas.

May 22 – The Treasury Department sanctioned five Iranians for providing ballistic missile-related technical expertise or transferring weapons to the Houthis, a Zaydi Shiite movement that has been fighting Yemen’s Sunni-majority government since 2004. The five individuals were associated with the IRGC-QF, an elite unit responsible for operations outside of Iran. 

May 23 – Supreme Leader Khamenei issued six conditions that had to be met by Europe to remain in the nuclear deal. Europe must secure “a resolution against the U.S. violation” of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the JCPOA, he said. Europe must stop objecting to Iran’s missile testing or its policies in the Middle East as well as stand against U.S. sanctions, Khamenei added. "If the Europeans linger over our demands, Iran has the right to resume its nuclear activities. When we see that the JCPOA was useless, one way forward is to restart those halted activities," Khamenei warned in an address to government officials. Two days later, representatives of the five remaining countries in the JCPOA met with Iranian representatives for the first time since the U.S. withdrawal. They discussed ways to continue with the deal without the United States.

July 16 – Iran filed a lawsuit against the United States at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) over the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions. Iran alleged that the United States violated a treaty signed in 1955, more than two decades before the Islamic Revolution and the subsequent souring of relations between the two countries.

July 29 - Iran’s currency hit another record low, dipping below 100,000 rials to one U.S. dollar. The economy continued a downward spiral in anticipation of the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions in August. On August 6, President Trump signed an Executive Order re-imposing sanctions on Iran. “These actions include re-imposing sanctions on Iran’s automotive sector and on its trade in gold and precious metals, as well as sanctions related to the Iranian rial,” Trump said. The measures took effect on August 7, while remaining sanctions, including those on oil exports, were scheduled to be re-imposed on November 5. 

Sep. 3 – Iran’s rial hit another record low, trading at 128,500 rials to the dollar on the open market. The currency had lost some 70 percent of its value over the year.

Sept. 24- E.U. High Representative Federica Mogherini chaired a meeting on the nuclear deal’s implementation attended by the Chinese, French, German, Russian, U.K., and Iranian foreign ministers. After the meeting, Mogherini announced that the European Union would set up a “Special Purpose Vehicle,” a legal entity to facilitate legitimate financial transactions with Iran, despite U.S. sanctions. She said the mechanism could be opened to other countries as well.

Oct. 3 – The International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered the United States to ease sanctions on Iran for humanitarian reasons. The court lacked an enforcement mechanism, so the ruling was largely a symbolic victory for the Islamic Republic. Iran had filed the lawsuit against the United States in July. It alleged that the re-imposition of sanctions violated a treaty signed in 1955, more than two decades before the Islamic Revolution and the subsequent souring of U.S.-Iran relations. Pompeo said Iran was “abusing the ICJ for political and propaganda purposes.” He also announced the termination of the 1955 Treaty of Amity.

Nov. 5 – The U.S. Treasury re-imposed sanctions on Iran that had been lifted or waived in January 2016 under the JCPOA. The Office of Foreign Assets Control sanctioned more than 700 individuals, entities, aircraft, and vessels—its largest ever single-day action targeting Iran. The targets included banks, including Iran’s Central Bank, the Iranian oil company, and many other key economic actors. Iran’s leaders must cease support for terrorism, stop proliferating ballistic missiles, end destructive regional activities, and abandon their nuclear ambitions immediately if they seek a path to sanctions relief,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

Nov. 13 – Ambassador-at-Large Nathan Sales, the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism, said that Tehran provides nearly one billion dollars a year to terrorist groups including Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas in Gaza, the Houthis in Yemen, and various groups in Iraq and Syria. “We will continue to ratchet up the pressure until Iran comes to its senses, joins the community of civilized nations, and ends its support for murder and mayhem across the globe,” Sales told an audience at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Nov. 22 – The U.S. ambassador to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) alleged that Iran failed to declare all its chemical weapons to the group. “The United States is also concerned that Iran is pursuing Central Nervous System-Acting Chemicals for offensive purposes,” Ambassador Kenneth Ward told participants at an OPCW conference. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif dismissed the U.S. claim. “US wants to resort to int'l conventions to make allegations against Iran when it's made a policy of violating them itself. WMD allegations—by a country that supported Iraq’s use of CW against Iran; then invaded Iraq to allegedly rid it of them—is not just obscene, it’s dangerous,” said Zarif.

Nov. 29 – Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative for Iran, unveiled what he called new evidence of Iranian weapons proliferation. He delivered a briefing in front of a display of missiles, rockets, drones and other equipment that were allegedly transferred to the Houthis in Yemen or the Taliban in Afghanistan. “The new weapons we are disclosing today illustrate the scale of Iran’s destructive role across the region. The same kind of rockets here today could tomorrow land in a public market in Kabul or an international airport,” said Hook.

Dec. 1 – The United States condemned Iran’s test of a medium range ballistic missile reportedly capable of striking parts of Europe and anywhere in the Middle East. “This test violates U.N. Security Council resolution 2231 that bans Iran from undertaking ‘any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology,’” claimed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. “Making a mockery of the UNSC won't obscure failure to fulfill obligations & to hold US to account over non-compliance. Esp when even US admits that UNSCR2231 does NOT prohibit Iran's deterrent capabilities. Rather than undermining 2231, better to work towards its adherence by all,” replied Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Resolution 2231 only “calls upon” Iran to not test missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.



Jan. 10 – In a major speech in Cairo, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo highlighted two primary goals for the Middle East: defeating ISIS and containing Iran’s influence. "In Syria, the United States will use diplomacy and work with our partners to expel every last Iranian boot, and work through the U.N.-led process to bring peace and stability to the long-suffering Syrian people," he said.

Jan. 15 – Iran attempted and failed to launch a Payam satellite into orbit. On February 6, Iran tried and failed again to launch a Doosti satellite into orbit. Iranian officials claimed that their satellite program is solely for peaceful purposes. The U.S. State Department condemned both launches, alleging that they violated UN Security Council Resolution 2231 by incorporating ballistic missile technology into their rocket design. 

Jan. 29 – U.S. Intelligence agencies released their annual Worldwide Threat Assessment and discussed Iran during a Senate hearing. “We continue to assess that Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities we judge necessary to produce a nuclear device,” said the report. “Iran almost certainly will continue to develop and maintain terrorist capabilities as an option to deter or retaliate against its perceived adversaries,” it added.

President Trump rejected the intelligence agencies’ assessment. “The Intelligence people seem to be extremely passive and naive when it comes to the dangers of Iran. They are wrong!” he tweeted.

Jan. 31 – Britain, France, and Germany announced the establishment of a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) for European companies to facilitate trade with Iran. The entity, formally named the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX), was designed to facilitate trade with Iran in humanitarian goods that are exempt from U.S. sanctions under the Trade Sanction Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000. INSTEX enabled firms to barter those goods with Iran, thereby avoiding transactions in U.S. dollars.

Feb. 2 – Iran unveiled a new surface-to-surface cruise missile during celebrations leading up to the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. State television claimed that the new Hoveizeh missile had a range of 810 miles. On February 7, IRGC Commander Mohammed Ali Jafari unveiled the Dezful short-range ballistic missile, with a reported range of 621 miles. Jafari also announced the establishment of an underground facility in Iran for mass-producing precision missiles. On February 11, President Hassan Rouhani addressed the nation. “We have not –and will not- ask for permission from anybody for improving our defensive power. We will continue this path and I say this clearly to the people of Iran that Iran’s military power in the past 40 years, especially in the recent 5 years has amazed the entire world,” he said.

Feb. 4 – President Donald Trump said that U.S. forces departing Syria would shift to bases in Iraq to “watch” Iran, in an interview with CBS news. Iraqi leaders quickly condemned his remark. “Do not burden Iraq with your own policy priorities,” said Iraqi President Barham Salih. On March 11, President Hassan Rouhani arrived in Iraq for a three-day visit. It was his first official visit to Iran’s western neighbor. Rouhani’s meetings with top political, military, community, and religious leaders clearly signaled that Iran’s relationship with Iraq will remain strong despite U.S. concerns. Rouhani also secured a rare meeting with Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al Sistani, Iraq’s most influential Shiite cleric. 

Feb. 14 – Vice President Mike Pence demanded that European countries join the United States in withdrawing from the JCPOA during a Middle East conference that the United States co-hosted in Warsaw, Poland. On the same day, a suicide bombing in the Iranian province of Sistan and Baluchestan killed 27 IRGC soldiers. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani blamed the United States and Israel for the attack.

Feb. 17 – Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif accused the United States of “exporting insecurity” to the Middle East and trying to foment regime change in his country. In a defiant address at the Munich Security Forum, he condemned Washington for reimposing sanctions and withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal. “To gain accomplices in its lawlessness, the U.S. is now even laboring to force others to violate that Resolution, which explicitly calls for normalization of economic relations with Iran,” he said. Zarif argued that Washington has a “pathological obsession” with the Islamic Republic. He also claimed that Israel is “looking for war” through its activities in Syria.

March 5 – The U.S. State Department and Treasury sanctioned Harakat al Nujaba (HAN), an Iran-backed militia in Iraq, and its leader, Akram Abbas al Kabi. The State Department designated them as Specially Designated Global Terrorists. “These designations demonstrate the United States’ unwavering commitment to isolate and deny funding to the Iranian regime’s terrorist proxies,” said the State Department.

Also on March 5, Ambassador Jackie Wolcott, the U.S. representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), called for a full accounting of Iran’s past nuclear activities. “As we move forward, Iran must end its longstanding efforts to deny and conceal the reality of past nuclear weapons work. Our interest in resolving these issues is not to score political points, but to address critical verification issues with direct relevance to how we move forward,” she said at the IAEA Board of Governors Meeting. Wolcott reiterated the Trump administration’s offer of “full normalization of relationships with the international community” in return for a dramatic change in Iran’s behavior.

March 7 – March 7, relatives of three Americans detained in Iran appealed to lawmakers and the Trump administration to do more to free their family members. Babak Namazi spoke on behalf of his father, Baquer, and brother, Siamak, who were sentenced to 10 years imprisonment for allegedly collaborating with a “hostile” government. The “situation for my family, and especially my seriously ill father, is critical and swiftly heading towards an irreversible tragedy unless something is done and done urgently,” said Namazi.

March 14 – The State Department released its Report on Human Rights in Iran. Iran’s human rights record “remained extremely poor and worsened in several key areas” in 2018, according to the report. Issues included executions of juvenile offenders, denial of fair trials, poor prison conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, invasion of privacy, severe restrictions on freedom of expression, and more. Iran is “one of the most serious human rights situations in the world, I think. When you read the report, it’s just one abuse after another. Executing people for no – without any due process, the political system where this self-appointed group selects who can be the candidates, just terrible abuses of people, lots of political prisoners,” said Ambassador Michael Kozak at the launch of the report.

March 20 – President Donald Trump issued a message to people celebrating Nowruz, the Persian New Year, around the world, including in Iran. He used the occasion to criticize the Islamic Republic's government. “This year, as they have each year for the past four decades, they [Iranians] mark the arrival of spring under the heavy burden of the oppression of their country’s ruthless and corrupt regime,” he said. Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif, in a video message, retorted that the United States was using “medieval tactics” to “destroy” Iranian livelihoods.

March 22 – The U.S. State Department and Treasury sanctioned 31 Iranian entities and individuals linked to the Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research. The organization was founded by Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who allegedly headed Iran’s pre-2004 nuclear weapons program, in 2011. “SPND has employed as many as 1500 individuals – including numerous researchers associated with the Amad plan, who continue to carry out dual-use research and development activities, of which aspects are potentially useful for nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons delivery systems,” according to the State Department. The designations serve as a “warning to individuals and entities considering dealing with the Iranian regime’s defense sector in general, and SPND in particular: by engaging in sanctionable activity with designated Iranian persons, you risk professional, personal, and financial isolation,” said the Treasury.

March 26 – The United States sanctioned a network of front companies that evaded U.S. sanctions to provide support to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Iran’s Ministry and Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL). “The IRGC, MODAFL, and other malign actors in Iran continue to exploit the international financial system to evade sanctions, while the regime funds terrorism and other destabilizing activities across the region,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

April 2 – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement that sympathized with the victims of flash floods across Iran, but also blasted Iran's government for mismanagement and its poor treatment of environmentalists. “On behalf of the American people, we offer our condolences to the victims of the recent floods in Iran. These floods once again show the level of Iranian regime mismanagement in urban planning and in emergency preparedness,” the statement said. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted a response in which he accused Washington of “economic terrorism” because, he alleged, U.S. sanctions had prevented the transfer of funds to Iranian Red Crescent accounts.

April 8 – The United States announced the designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), effective April 15. The IRGC is Iran’s most powerful military and security organization as well as a key economic player. “This unprecedented step, led by the Department of State, recognizes the reality that Iran is not only a State Sponsor of Terrorism, but that the IRGC actively participates in, finances, and promotes terrorism as a tool of statecraft,” said President Donald Trump. He noted that it was the “first time that the United States has ever named part of another government as a FTO.” In response, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council designated U.S. Central Command forces as terrorists and the U.S. as a “sponsor of terrorism.”

April 22 – Secretary of State Pompeo announced that the United States will stop providing sanctions exemptions to countries that import Iranian oil. “We will continue to apply maximum pressure on the Iranian regime until its leaders change their destructive behavior, respect the rights of the Iranian people, and return to the negotiating table,” said Pompeo. He noted that oil sales account for up to 40 percent of Iran’s revenue. The Trump administration's stated goal was to bring Iranian exports down to zero.

April 24 – Foreign Minister Zarif ruled out negotiating a new nuclear deal with the United States. At an Asia Society event in New York City, Zarif said he did not think Trump wants a war with Iran. But Zarif implied that National Security Advisor John Bolton seeks conflict, with regime change as the overall goal. He claimed that “the B team” —Bolton, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed — is trying “to push Iran to take action” and then use the resulting conflict to weaken Iran. Zarif said “it’s not a crisis yet, but it’s a dangerous situation.” But he warned that “accidents, plotted accidents are possible.”

May 5 – National Security Advisor John Bolton announced the deployment of a carrier strike group and bomber task force to the Middle East “to send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force.” He said the move was in response to “a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings,” but did not specify further. The White House did not specify what Iranian activities it was responding to, but they were widely reported by the media to be related to intelligence citing U.S. interests in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and the Persian Gulf. The deployment of the carrier strike group, however, was part of regularly scheduled deployment. 

USS Abraham Lincoln

May 8 – President Hassan Rouhani announced that Iran will stop complying with parts of the 2015 nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The move came on the one-year anniversary of the U.S. withdrawal from the agreement. In a televised speech to his cabinet, Rouhani said Iran would resume stockpiling excess uranium and heavy water used in its nuclear reactors. Rouhani also warned that Iran will remove caps on uranium enrichment and resume work at the Arak nuclear facility if Iran’s oil and banking sectors are not protected from U.S. sanctions within 60 days. Rouhani expressed his impatience with the remaining parties to the JCPOA – Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia. “We have given deadlines to JCPOA member states several times,” he said. "In simpler language, we felt that there was a need for surgery and the one-year-old painkillers were not enough; today's action is a surgical procedure to save the JCPOA, not to end it.”

May 8 – President Trump signed an executive order to impose sanctions on Iran’s iron, steel, aluminum, and copper sectors. The White House statement noted that those metals are “the regime’s largest non-petroleum-related sources of export revenue,” some 10 percent. Trump warned that “Tehran can expect further actions unless it fundamentally alters its conduct.”

May 9 – Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan reportedly presented an updated plan for 120,000 U.S. troops to be deployed to the region in the event of an Iranian attack on U.S. forces or sprint towards attaining a nuclear weapon, according to The New York Times. On May 14, President Trump said the report was “fake news.” But he said that if the United States were to implement such a plan, “we’d send a hell of a lot more” troops. U.S. officials told NBC News that Shanahan had presented a range of options to Trump’s national security team. 

May 10 – The Pentagon announced that additional forces would join the carrier group—the U.S.S. Arlington (capable of supporting amphibious assault, special operations or expeditionary warfare missions) and a Patriot missile defense battery. 

May 12 – Four ships off the coast of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were reportedly sabotaged, including two Saudi Arabian oil tankers. One was due to take a delivery of Saudi oil to the United States. “Fortunately, the attack didn't lead to any casualties or oil spill; however, it caused significant damage to the structures of the two vessels,” said Khalid al-Falih, the kingdom’s energy minister. 

The UAE did not speculate on who might have been responsible, but the alleged attack came as the United States warned that “Iran or its proxies” could target maritime traffic in and around the Persian Gulf. Iran was the most likely culprit, according to a U.S. official who spoke with Reuters on condition of anonymity, but the United States did not offer conclusive proof. On May 13, Trump warned that Iran “will suffer greatly” if it attacks U.S. interests in the Gulf. “We will see what happens with Iran. If they do anything, it’ll be a big mistake,” he told the press. But Iran denied any involvement and accused the Trump administration officials of trying to frame it. Khamenei reiterated that his country was not interested in a military conflict with the United States. 


May 13 – Secretary Pompeo made an unscheduled detour to Brussels to brief European leaders on the Iranian threat. Pompeo met his E.U., French, German, and U.K. counterparts in separate bilateral meetings. “The secretary shared information and intelligence with allies and discussed the multiple plot vectors emerging from Iran,” according to Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook. Pompeo also met with NATO’s secretary general. 

May 15 – The United States ordered the immediate departure of all non-emergency U.S. government employees from Iraq, citing security concerns. The U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), which is responsible for U.S. military forces in the Middle East, contradicted a comment made a day earlier by Major General Chris Ghika, the British deputy commander of anti-ISIS coalition forces, that Iran-backed militias in Iraq did not pose an increased threat to coalition personnel. “Recent comments from OIR's Deputy Commander run counter to the identified credible threats available to intelligence from U.S. and allies regarding Iranian backed forces in the region,” the CENTCOM statement said

The New York Times reported that photographs of missiles on small boats in the Persian Gulf were the cause of the White House’s increased warnings about the threat from Iran. The concern was that the IRGC would fire them at U.S. naval vessels or disrupt commercial shipping. Intelligence also suggested American troops in Iraq could be targeted by militias with ties to Tehran. 

Secretary Pompeo spoke with Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Sa'id Al Sa'id about “Iranian threats to the Gulf region” in a telephone call. Oman, located next to the Strait of Hormuz, has historically been an interlocutor between Iran and the United States. 

A Saudi state-aligned newspaper, Arab News, published an op-ed calling for a surgical strike on Iran. It cited President Trump’s decision to launch limited strikes on Assad forces as a precedent. 


May 16 – President Trump welcomed Swiss President Ueli Maurer to the White House. When asked by the press if the United States was going to war with Iran, Trump responded, “I hope not.” The two were going to discuss “matters such as Switzerland's role in facilitating diplomatic relations and other international issues,” according to a White House statement. In the absence of formal diplomatic relations between Iran and the United States, the Swiss represent U.S. interests in Tehran. Switzerland has historically been an intermediary between the United States and Iran.  


U.K. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt tweeted that he and Secretary Pompeo agreed on the “heightened threat posed by Iran.” 


Saudi Prince Khalid bin Salman, the kingdom’s defense minister, blamed Iran for the attack on the oil pipeline in a tweet. 


Two U.S. Navy destroyers, the U.S.S. McFaul and the U.S.S. Gonzalez, safely traveled through the Strait of Hormuz unhindered. 

May 17 – The IRGC deputy for parliamentary affairs warned that U.S. forces in the Gulf are vulnerable. “Even our short-range missiles can easily reach (U.S.) warships in the Persian Gulf,” said Mohammad Saleh Jokar, according to Fars News Agency via Reuters. “America cannot afford the costs of a new war, and the country is in a bad situation in terms of manpower and social conditions.”

A senior Iranian military official criticized the U.S. strategy on Iran. “The actions of American leaders in exerting pressure and launching sanctions ... while speaking of talks, is like holding a gun at someone and asking for friendship and negotiations,” said Armed Forces Command Political Deputy Rasoul Sanai-Rad, according to Mehr News Agency via Reuters. 

On Twitter, a senior Iranian lawmaker suggested developing a mechanism to prevent U.S.-Iran tensions from boiling over. 


Foreign Minister Zarif commented on reports that President Trump did not necessarily agree with Bolton’s stance on Iran. 


U.S. officials told NBC News that an intelligence assessment, including photographs and forensics, found it was “highly likely” that Iran or one of its proxies were responsible for the tanker attack.

A Defense Department official and a congressional official told The New York Times that Iran unloaded missiles from at least two small boats in its territorial waters. The move was seen as a de-escalation in tensions. 


May 19 – In a tweet, President Trump warned Iran against threatening the United States.


Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al Jubeir told reporters that his country “does not want war in the region and does not strive for that… but at the same time, if the other side chooses war, the kingdom will fight this with all force and determination and it will defend itself, its citizens and its interests.”

May 20 – Foreign Minister Zarif shot back at President Trump with two tweets, one accusing the United States of “economic terrorism” for its implementation of unilateral sanctions and another claiming that National Security Advisor Bolton was pushing for war. 


A Katyusha rocket was fired into Baghdad’s Green Zone, a heavily fortified area that houses Iraqi government offices and foreign embassies. It fell near the U.S. Embassy but did not harm anyone, according to the Iraqi military. A State Department official warned that the United States would hold Iran responsible for any attacks conducted by proxy militia forces, according to Reuters. No group claimed responsibility for the attack. 

Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi visited Tehran and met Foreign Minister Zarif. The two discussed a range of bilateral, regional and international issues, according to Fars News Agency.