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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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This image provided by NASA shows the Strait of Hormuz. The closure of the Strait of Hormuz is just one of many incidents that have escalated tensions between Iran and the US.

NASA/AP

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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.

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