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.
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.