Iran and US: Could they talk war into happening?
Analysts warn about the dangers of rhetoric as the stage appears set for a highly volatile year with both the United States and Iran preparing for elections.
With this month's assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist – widely seen as part of a covert war – and impending sanctions targeting Iran's oil industry, tensions between the Islamic Republic and the West have escalated to their highest pitch in years.Skip to next paragraph
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What began as a US-led carrot-and-stick policy designed to goad Iran into dropping any aspirations of developing nuclear weapons has turned into a purely punitive approach that leaves Iranian leaders little reason to cooperate, say analysts. "[Iranian leaders] have very few tools in their tool kit right now, and in a sense we have pushed them into a corner with sanctions," says Anoushiravan Ehteshami, an Iran specialist at Durham University in England.
"So what else do they have to lose? If they retaliate, they can change the game a bit, and that's what they are doing," says Mr. Ehteshami. "Of course, when you start changing the game a bit, you don't quite control how much you change. You can unleash all kinds of forces."
Indeed, the stage appears set for a highly volatile year, as both the United States and Iran prepare for important elections, Tehran faces key decisions on its nuclear program, and an Iranian-American convicted of spying sits on death row in Iran.
When Iran's supreme religious leader looked out on his nation's strategic landscape in mid-November, he saw many gathering storm clouds. Enemies were readying tougher sanctions – perhaps to embargo oil, Iran's economic lifeblood. They were killing Iranian nuclear scientists. They had sent a computer virus to disrupt Iran's uranium enrichment. Their agents were reportedly inside Iran, replacing street signs and bricks in buildings with new ones equipped with radiation detectors.
And the United Nations nuclear watchdog had just published details of alleged "systematic" nuclear weapons-related work by Iran through late 2003, and declared of "particular concern" more episodic work as recently as 2009 – prompting fresh global opprobrium.
So Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a warning. "Iran is not a nation to sit still and just observe threats from fragile materialistic powers which are being eaten by worms from inside," he told military college students in Tehran. "Iran will respond with full force to any aggression or even threats in a way that will demolish the aggressors from within."
Since then, Mr. Khamenei has stayed true to his promise. When the US and Israel staged or announced military exercises in the neighborhood, so did Iran, unveiling new rocket and missile capabilities.