The two archrivals have recently been firing off salvos against each other, increasing tension not only in the Gulf but also around the world.

An undated US Air Force handout photo of a RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned (drone) aircraft.
An undated US Air Force handout photo of a RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned (drone) aircraft. (Reuters)

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) announced the downing of a US unmanned aerial vehicle in its airspace on Thursday, escalating tensions between Tehran and Washington.

A comment came from a Revolutionary Guard commander that while Iran has no intention of war with anyone, it's "ready for war."

US President Donald Trump took to Twitter to say: “Iran made a very big mistake!”

A day later, the commander of the Revolutionary Guard’s aerospace division said that Iran had sent several “warnings” to the American drone before firing at it.

In preparation for a US retaliation, Trump sent a message via Oman to Iranian officials that an American attack was coming.

But soon after, preparations of a military strike were called off, a US official said.

An Iranian official told Reuters that Trump's message carried reconciliatory undertones as the American president said he was "against the war" and wanted to "talk to Tehran."

“He [Trump] gave a short period of time to get our response but Iran’s immediate response was that it is up to the Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei to decide about this issue,” the official said, according to Reuters.

How did the two countries come to this point?

The US deploying warships and bombers in the Middle East

On May 6, the US dispatched heavy duty military equipment to the Middle East to 'counter' Iran and its allies.

A day before sending military devices in the region, US National Security Adviser John Bolton engaged in war rhetoric saying any attack on the US interests or its allies would “be met with unrelenting force”. 

"Recently, senior US government officials have sent an official message to high-ranking Iranian officials stressing that they have no plan for military conflict with Iran under any circumstances," Sadollah Zareyee said in an interview with the Persian-language service of Tasnim news agency on May 4.

Pompeo’s visit to Baghdad

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Baghdad after cancelling a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on May 8.

Pompeo met with Iraqi President Barham Salih and Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi. During the meeting, he said that Iraq should protect Americans in the country.

An advisor of Khamenei said Iran is confident the US is not only unwilling but also unable to start a war with Iran.

“Washington’s unwillingness to attack Iran results from its inability,” he added.

On the same day, Iran announced it would decrease its commitment to the nuclear deal (JCPOA) from which the Trump administration had withdrawn earlier.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani gave the EU and others 60 days to salvage the agreement –– otherwise Iran would continue with its uranium enrichment programme. 

US warning to its citizens to avoid visiting Iraq

The US embassy to Baghdad warned its citizens on May 12 to avoid travelling 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 Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan presented an updated military plan to send as many as 120,000 troops to the Middle East if Iran attacks American forces.

Despite the soaring tensions, Mahdi he had felt indications from talks with both the US and Iran that "things will end well."

Iran said it needed two to four months to restore its nuclear programme to the level it was in 2015, right before the nuclear deal was agreed upon and implemented.

Sabotage on Saudi oil tankers 

Saudi Arabia said that two of its oil tankers were among vessels targeted by a "sabotage attack" off the coast of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and condemned the incident as an attempt to undermine the security of global crude supplies. 

A US government source said that Iran gave its blessing to Houthi rebels who attacked oil facilities deep inside Saudi Arabia.

Then Saudi Arabia also accused Iran of ordering the attacks on Saudi oil tankers, incidents that were claimed by Yemen’s Houthi rebels. 

Deputy Minister of Defense Prince Khalid bin Salman, a son of King Salman, said in a tweet that the attack “proves that these militias are merely a tool that Iran’s regime uses to implement its expansionist agenda”.

Khamenei also said that there wouldn’t be a war between the US and Iran, as Washington knows it is not in its interests. 

He said in case of an escalation, “the US would be forced into a retreat”, and “neither we nor they, who know the war will not be in their interest, are after war."

US orders its staff to leave Iraq

The US State Department announced that all non-emergency staff had been ordered to leave Iraq, amid US concerns about the threat posed by Iranian backed forces.

Major General Hossein Salami, the commander of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, said in response to the move: “We are on the cusp of a full-scale confrontation with the enemy.”

According to former Iraqi vice president Iyad Allawi, Pompeo visiting Iraq came after Israeli intelligence detected ballistic missile platforms in Basra.

Two oil tankers attacked in the Gulf of Oman

Two tankers were struck by explosions last Thursday in the Gulf of Oman, the second attack in a month in the strategic shipping lane amid a tense US-Iran standoff, sparking fears of a regional conflagration and sending oil prices soaring.

The incident happened during the meeting of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. The meeting was considered historic because it was the first official visit by Japan to Iran since the Iranian Revolution.

According to Iranian state media, at least 44 crew members from two tankers were rescued and taken to an Iranian port.

However, the US army accused Iran over the attacks.

Moreover, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman accused arch-rival Iran of attacks on oil tankers in a vital Gulf shipping channel, adding he "won't hesitate" to tackle any threats to the kingdom, according to an interview published on Sunday. 

"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," the Saudi crown prince, also known as MBS, told pan-Arab daily Asharq al Awsat, in his first public comments since the attacks.