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Explained: Iran And The U.S. Are A Step Closer To War, But Will It Start WWIII?

Neither Donald Trump nor Iran wants war in the Middle East, experts say, but escalating revenge attacks may bring both nations to a point where "blood must be met with blood".

That's the assessment of Australian experts on American and Iranian politics, in the wake of Tehran's missile barrage on U.S. targets in Iraq on Wednesday, following the killing of a senior Iran army general.

While fears were raised the missile attack would see a ferocious military response from the U.S., President Trump quelled the immediate situation and said he believed Iran would "stand down".

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U.S. President Donald Trump said Iran appears to be "standing down" following the recent missile strike on U.S targets, as European and Gulf leaders urged the Iranian government to avoid escalating the conflict. 

"We are getting towards war," Shahram Akbarzadeh, a professor of Middle Eastern politics at Deakin University, told 10 daily.

"On both sides, there seems to be an overwhelming impulse toward revenge," David Smith, a senior lecturer in American politics at the University of Sydney's United States Studies Centre, added.

Image: Getty

So what's happening in Iran? How did we get to a point where the U.S. is killing Iranian army leaders, and Iran is bombing American targets in Iraq? And is World War III on the cards?

Here's what we know.

What happened in Iraq?

Iran's revolutionary guard launched an attack on military bases in Iraq housing American troops. U.S. officials said more than a dozen missiles struck, but that no American troops were killed.

Iranian officials said it was revenge for the U.S. killing Major General Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s top military commander in Baghdad and leader of its elite Quds fighting force.

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Iran Supreme Leader Says Revenge Missile Strikes 'Not Enough'

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has gloated about the recent missile strike on U.S. targets, saying they were a slap in the face to America, but they're "not enough".

Trump since backed away from immediate military reprisal, saying "American strength, both military and economic, is the best deterrent" and "the fact that we have this great military and equipment, however, does not mean we have to use it."

How did we get here?

America and Iran have been bitter enemies for years.

Smith said some in U.S. defence and diplomacy circles, and in Trump's inner sanctum, still held a "sore spot" over the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, where dozens of diplomats were held captive for over a year in the American embassy in Tehran. Smith said some had wanted to "get Iran back" for years for the "humiliating" episode.

Personal enmity aside, Tehran has threatened to develop nuclear weapons for years, leading then-President Barack Obama to spearhead a nuclear deal with Iran in 2015. Under the agreement, sanctions would be lifted if Iran agreed to halt its nuclear program -- but Trump ripped the U.S. out of the deal in 2018, slapping sanctions back on.

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It's a "staring contest" in the Middle East right now, as America and Iran face off -- and experts fear a conflict could kick off accidentally.

This led to a series of escalations in the region as Iranian citizens and government protested over the sanctions biting their economy.

In June 2019, an unmanned U.S. drone was shot down by Iran in the Strait of Hormuz, a week after oil tankers were bombed in the same region. American officials blamed Iran for the attacks but Iran denied responsibility.

The killing of Soleimani, which U.S. officials claimed was in response to "imminent threats to American lives," re-sparked that tense situation, which had simmered down in recent months.

Protesters hold pictures of Soleimani, during a demonstration outside the US consulate in Istanbul on January 5. Image: Getty

"We're much closer to war now than a few months ago after the drone incident," Smith said.

Akbarzadeh said Trump's recent dealings with Iran had been a "bullying approach" rather than previous diplomatic efforts.

What sanctions is the U.S. imposing on Iran?

Trump did not immediately announce what new sanctions he would place on Iran. A sanction is a diplomatic tool where a country imposes a punishment on another, usually in retaliation for threats or actions it has taken.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called the missile strike "a slap in the face of the U.S". Image: Getty

Previous U.S. sanctions have included banning Iranian companies from doing business with American banks and businesses, banning import or export licenses, barring certain Iranian officials from travelling to the U.S., and freezing Iranian assets in the U.S.

Are we heading toward WW3?

The missile strike may not have been the rapid escalation pundits initially predicted.

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Iran Vows Revenge For U.S. Killing Of Top Commander Qassem Soleimani

Iran's Defense Minister, Amir Hatami, was quoted by state news agency IRNA as saying the Islamic republic would take a "crushing revenge" for Soleimani's assassination "from all those involved and responsible."

Reports claim Iran gave Iraq advance notice of the strikes -- leading to analysis the barrage was geopolitical theatre, meant to show protesting citizens it was taking action after Soleimani's killing, but that it did not want large U.S. casualties.

Iranian officials said the strike would be the end of their retaliation, and that they didn't want to start a war with America.

Retired Admiral Sandy Winnefeld, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told CBS the missiles were fairly accurate weapons -- suggesting they could have inflicted severe casualties if they wanted to.

Trump has now asked NATO for more help with "the Middle East process".

Smith and Akbarzadeh both say it's not imminent, but perhaps war is getting closer.

"The irony of this whole scenario is neither American or Iran want another war," Akbarzadeh said.

"Iran knows its economy is in shambles. They can't sustain a war effort, their military won't measure up.

"Trump says he wants to take troops out of the region and doesn't want a war, but their kneejerk reactions are really pushing in that direction."

Anti-war protesters outside the White House on Thursday. Image: Getty

Smith agrees but said war may become inevitable at some point.

"There seems to be an overwhelming impulse toward revenge," he said.

"Maybe this won't result in all-out war right now, but you've got to wonder how many more tit-for-tat incidents can happen without one starting. Plenty of wars have started when the sides say they don't want war."

Does Trump want a war?

Smith said he believed Trump did not want to mire the U.S. in another conflict quagmire in the Middle East -- especially considering this is an election year in the U.S., and a large part of Trump's 2016 election pitch was about pulling Americans out of foreign wars -- but feared others in Trump's administration may be more inclined.

Trump, flanked by Pompeo and former National Security Advisor John Bolton -- both considered "hawks" on Iran. Image: Getty

Members of Trump's inner circle -- including secretary of state Mike Pompeo and Senator Lindsey Graham -- are considered 'hawks' on Iran, spoiling for conflict and seeing it as America's biggest threat.

"We’re getting to a point where, on both sides, blood must be met with blood. Both sides say they want to avoid war, but how many more revenge attacks can happen?" he wondered.

Akbarzadeh agreed.

"We are getting towards war. I don't know what's going to happen... hopefully, cooler heads prevail, but that's what we're headed towards," he said.

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