America And Iran: How This Powderkeg Nuclear Situation Began

Trump's wild all-caps tweet sent things into overdrive.

When Donald Trump sensationally snatched the U.S. presidency, many joked darkly that World War III could be started with one of his trademark wild tweets, full of random capitalisations and unshackled from the traditional constraints of grammar and spelling.

But when July 23 came around, even after we had laughed about the possibility, it was hard not to just stare in open-mouthed horror.

Trump's all-caps tweet, addressed at Iran's president Hassan Rouhani, is perhaps the most direct, incendiary and astonishing escalation of a simmering tension which has threatened to boil over since not long after the real estate/casino/steak mogul took office.

The situation ratcheted up after controversial former United Nations ambassador John Bolton, a veteran of the Bush administration and a vocal proponent of strong military action in the Middle East -- "To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran", the hardliner wrote in a 2015 editorial -- joined the White House as Trump's national security advisor.

In May, Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal. Just last week, the ABC reported Australian government figures believed the United States was preparing to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities within the next month.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (right) (EPA/PRESIDENTIAL OFFICE HANDOUT)

So how did we get here? Why are the U.S. and Iran seemingly about to go to war?

Nuclear tensions

Iran has nuclear capabilities. After starting a nuclear program in the 1950s -- with help from the United States -- non-proliferation treaties compelled Iran not to develop nuclear weapons. However, the country was later found to be running a clandestine uranium enrichment program, with fears that was a step toward nuclear bombs.

Iran's nuclear facilities (PA Graphics)

In May this year, just days before Trump sensationally withdrew his country from the nuclear deal -- more on that in a second -- the International Atomic Energy Agency ruled that "before the end of 2003, an organizational structure was in place in Iran suitable for the coordination of a range of activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device".

However, the IAEA also ruled "no credible indications of activities in Iran relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device after 2009."

What is the Iran nuclear deal?

In 2015, under President Barack Obama, the powerful P5 nations --  the permanent members of the U.N. security council, being the U.S. China, Russia, France and United Kingdom -- and Germany came to agreement with Iran. Under the deal, sanctions against Iran would be loosened in exchange for the country limiting its activity around enrichment and stockpiling.

It was seen as a major win for Obama, but was also a major bugbear for Trump, who criticised the deal as too soft on Iran through his campaign for the presidency. After trying to take the sword to Obamacare, and pulling the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate agreement, the Obama connection was seen as a key reason for his opposition to the nuclear deal. In May, he withdrew the U.S. from that agreement too.

Last month, Iran opened another nuclear enrichment facility.

Deal over

Trump said he would reinstate sanctions against Iran, calling the nuclear deal "defective at its core". He claimed the world "cannot prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb under the decaying and rotten structure of the current agreement" and said he would "not be held hostage to nuclear blackmail."

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Iran would be left "battling to keep its economy alive" under what he claimed would be the "strongest sanctions in history". The American actions sparked large protests in Iran.

Demonstrators burn an American flag during a protest in Tehran, Iran on May 11, 2018, following the decision by U.S. President Donald Trump to pull out of the nuclear deal and renew sanctions on the country. (AAP Image/CrowdSpark/Rouzbeh Fouladi)

Things simmered along for a few months until mid-July, when Rouhani was quoted as saying in a speech that "America must understand well that peace with Iran is the mother of all peace, and war with Iran is the mother of all wars." The Iranian president also warned the U.S. it was "playing with the lion’s tail" and they "will regret it."

It was these comments that seemed to set Trump off, with his all-caps tweet coming the next day.

A commander in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard later called Trump's tweet "psychological warfare". Another military leader was quoted as warning "If you begin the war, we will end the war" and that any conflict would "destroy all that you [the United States] possess.”

So now what?

Trump hasn't tweeted about Iran again since the July 23 screed, but that doesn't mean it's all over. On Friday, the ABC reported Australia may be involved in a coming strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. The ABC reported Australian assets could be used to help identify locations to hit, but that troops or military hardware was less likely to be involved.

"Developing a picture is very different to actually participating in a strike," one source, identified earlier as a "senior security source", told the ABC.

"Providing intelligence and understanding as to what is happening on the ground so that the Government and allied governments are fully informed to make decisions is different to active targeting."