Foreign policy analysts say an escalation of President Obamas hard-line approach toward Iran is heightening anxiety over the prospect of a military clash, as the U.S. and Europe impose tougher sanctions on the Islamic regime to stop its suspected nuclear weapons program.
At a recent Atlantic Council forum in Washington, foreign policy experts said the U.S. is entering a new, more dangerous phase with Iran.
"There's been two innovations to American policy in recent weeks, in that we've added a military dimension to our policy toward Iran and to efforts to ratchet up pressure on Iran, which didn't exist before," said Michael Eisenstadt, director of the Military and Security Studies Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Tensions spiked this week after the European Union agreed on an embargo of Iranian oil and sanctions against Iran's central bank similar to those levied by the United States. An American aircraft carrier, along with British and French warships, sailed through Iranian territorial waters into the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf, prompting two senior Iranian lawmakers to threaten to close the narrow passage through which nearly 35 percent of the world's oil supplies are shipped.
"This is the most scared I have been about the potential for military action between the U.S. and Iran since I started following the country," said Barbara Slavin, a member of the Atlantic Council's Iran Task Force.
In his State of the Union address Tuesday, Mr. Obama issued a stern warning to Iran, which says its nuclear program is for energy, not weapons.
"America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal," he said.
Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official now with the Brookings Institution, said a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities would cripple its program for no more than two years, while provoking Iranian retaliation against U.S. allies in the Middle East, he said.
"We are, indeed, in a fraught and dangerous situation," said Mr. Riedel. "There is saber rattling from Tehran to South Carolina. And if you've watched the debates so far this year, you've seen a lot of saber rattling," he added, referring to the primary contest for the Republican presidential nomination.
He predicted the United States or Israel would be seen as the aggressor "in the eyes of many countries in the world," if either attacks Iran.
"We will have initiated a military action, and we will have started a war," Mr. Riedel said. "We have drifted so easily into war twice in the last decade. Let's not make that mistake again."
Mr. Eisenstadt said a Israeli strike on Iran may be unavoidable.
"I think this year, 2012, is likely the year of decision for Israel on this issue," said Mr. Eisenstadt. "I think from their point of view, they look at this and say that time may no longer be working in their favor, and they may be reaching a point in which deferring military action means forgoing military action altogether."
The Obama administration insists it is still pursuing a "dual-track" approach to Iran, by which Mr. Obama is willing to talk with Iranian leaders or apply stronger sanctions when needed. Early in his presidency, Mr. Obama had offered an "open hand" that Iranian leaders have rejected.
"Iran's government, however, has shown time and again that it is not interested in serious negotiation, and so the U.S., along with its international partners, has employed increasingly stronger sanctions ...," said State Department spokesman Eddie Vasquez.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta earlier this month said the United States will not tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran.
One analyst suggested that the increased pressure on Iran is politically motivated by the presidential election campaign, especially with Republican candidates charging that Mr. Obama is weak on Iran.
"I would characterize it as buying time until after the elections," said Reza Marashi, director of research at the National Iranian American Council and a former State Department official.
"No politician, particularly a sitting president ... wants to look weak on national security issues on the run up to his or her re-election effort, so that forces [Mr. Obama] to take harder measures on Iran."
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