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.
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When the Obama administration said it would target Iran's Central Bank and oil flows with fresh sanctions, some Iranian officials warned they would respond by closing the Strait of Hormuz – the most important single choke point for global oil supplies. (Senior Iranian military officers later backtracked.)Skip to next paragraph
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And as the US, Israel, and the European Union stepped up pressure and sanctions began to bite, Iran repeated that its goal was producing peaceful energy – not bombs – and then enhanced its efforts earlier this month, when it not only began enriching uranium at a new, deeply buried facility, but produced a prototype fuel rod, its first.
"[Khamenei] has made very clear that he's not going to back down," says Farideh Farhi of the University of Hawaii. In recent days Iran's sacred "guide" stated that Iran was engaged in a crucial battle, comparing it to those of centuries ago when Muslims fought nonbelievers.
She says hard-line Iranian leaders are operating on the basis of dangerous assumptions. "Threatening to close Hormuz may sound insane, but attacking Iran by the United States or Israelis is even more insane, so they operate on the presumption that this will not happen," says Ms. Farhi, who has closely followed Iranian politics for decades. Other assumptions: that Iran can withstand any attack; that the US is weak; that the economically weak EU is also politically weak.
The Obama administration has also held to its own premise that Iranians don't give in to pressure unless it is a lot of pressure. The US has "operated under that assumption without realizing that we have reached a point where the policy of sticks and carrots has become only a policy of sticks," says Farhi. "There is absolutely no incentive for Khamenei to do anything else. At this point, what do they get out of compromise?"
That is the question Iran's leaders will be asking themselves ahead of fresh global nuclear talks – the first in a year – expected soon in Turkey.
"There is a danger: You can actually talk war into happening," says Ehteshami, coauthor of "Iran and the Rise of Its Neoconservatives."
This year is full of uncertainties that are shaping the agenda, he says. Iran's March parliamentary elections – the first since the 2009 presidential election that sparked mass protests – have been described by some as the "most important" since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
And in the US presidential election, where being tough on Iran is a no-lose policy, candidates are openly talking of war.
"It is how these have come together in such an unfortunate fashion," says Ehteshami, "that makes the situation very volatile and dangerous."