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US-Iran war of words: bluster or sign of imminent conflict?

An Iranian nuclear scientist was killed in Tehran today after a motorcyclist attached a magnetic bomb to his car. Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan was a chemistry expert and director of the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in central Iran. Varying opinions are quickly emerging over who is to blame for the attack. Iran blames the US and Israel for the attack. "Does anyone doubt that some combination of the two nations completely obsessed with Iran's nuclear program...are responsible?" asks Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com. Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations, however, is of a different opinion. He asks, "But is it in US national interest to bomb Iran to defend the principle of full cooperation with the IAEA? I would say no." 

 

Roshan's death comes amid mounting tension between the US and Iran over the Islamic Republic's nuclear program. Earlier this week, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that Iran had begun enriching uranium at 20 percent at the Fordow plant near the city of Qom. The plant is buried deep underground a military site and is said to be far more resistant to military strikes than existing plants. US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton responded to the news with a harsh tone."This step once again demonstrates the Iranian regime's blatant disregard for its responsibilities and that the country's growing isolation is self-inflicted," she said in a statement.

Map of Iran uranium enrichment facilities.

 

Since November 2011, the US and EU have taken significant steps to cut Iran out of the international financial network after IAEA published a report stating that Iran was involved in activities relevant to the development of nuclear weapons. Iran immediately slammed the report as politically motivated and a fabrication by the US. Tehran claims its uranium enrichment program is for nuclear research and peaceful energy purposes. "No one has a full sense of the Iranian production plan there," said one diplomat who has studied the few details released by Iran about the Fordow plant. "And I think that’s the point." Meanwhile, former US ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolten, says the Iranians are "testing Western powers' resolve to stop their advance towards developing a bomb."

 

Iran's releationship with the West has steadily declined in recent weeks as the US enacted sanctions on Iran's central bank on January 1, and the EU is expected to impose an embargo on Iranian oil by the end of the month. Western sanctions seek to undercut the Iranian government by halting the country's largest source of revenue: oil sales. The Iranian Economic Minister, Shamseddin Hosseini, likened the sanctions to "an economic war." On December 27, Iranian Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi warned that if the West followed through with its threats, Tehran would shut down the Strait of Hormuz, a 30-mile strategic waterway through which nearly one fourth of the world's oil passes every day. In the back-and-forth war of words, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta responded to the threat by saying that closing the strategic waterway would be a "red line" for the US.

 

Meanwhile, while Iran concluded a massive ten-day naval exercise last week stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Aden, some observers remain skeptical that US-Iran relations will escalate into a full-blown conflict. Iran analyst Michael Connel says the most likely outcome is "more bluster." Afshon Ostovar of Foreign Policy Magazine says that initiating a conflict with the US would be "a last-ditch, kamikaze act by the Iranians." However, he added, "as opportunities for compromise evaporate, and as relations continue to sour, the likelihood of war is steadily increasing."

 
 

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