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Tipsheet

Is This War?

In the aftermath of last week's reported assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist, our already strained relations with the rogue state have become even more precarious -- and senior US officials are predicting possible war this year.

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Tensions rising by the day, the Obama administration said Friday it is warning Iran through public and private channels against any action that threatens the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf. The Navy revealed that two U.S. ships in and near the Gulf were harassed by Iranian speedboats last week.

Spokesmen were vague on what the United States would do about Iran's threat to block the strategic Strait of Hormuz, but military officials have been clear that the U.S. is readying for a possible naval clash.

That prospect is the latest flashpoint with Iran, and one of the most serious. Although it currently overshadows the threat of war over Iran's disputed nuclear program, perhaps beginning with an Israeli military strike on Iran's nuclear structure, both simmering crises raise the possibility of a shooting war this year.

Navy officials said that in separate incidents Jan. 6, three Iranian speedboats — each armed with a mounted gun — briefly chased after a U.S. Navy ship just outside the Gulf near the Strait of Hormuz and a U.S. Coast Guard cutter in the northern Gulf. No shots were fired and the speedboats backed off.

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Iran has blamed the CIA and Israel for the death of its nuclear scientist, and while the US has come out and condemned the act, Israel has remained mute on the subject. Now, in the wake of that death and the maritime confrontation, President Obama has directly spoken with Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu, urging him not to launch an attack on Iran. However, top US officials report that they aren't entirely sure of Israel's intentions, and fear that they might strike has increased in recent weeks.

U.S. officials briefed on the military's planning said concern has mounted over the past two years that Israel may strike Iran. But rising tensions with Iran and recent changes at Iranian nuclear sites have ratcheted up the level of U.S. alarm.

"Our concern is heightened," a senior U.S. military official said of the probability of an Israeli strike over U.S. objections.

Tehran crossed at least one of Israel's "red lines" earlier this month when it announced it had begun enriching uranium at the Fordow underground nuclear facility near the holy city of Qom.

The planned closing of Israel's nuclear plant near Dimona this month, which was reported in Israeli media, sounded alarms in Washington, where officials feared it meant Israel was repositioning its own nuclear assets to safeguard them against a potential Iranian counterstrike.

Despite the close relationship between the U.S. and Israel, U.S. officials have consistently puzzled over Israeli intentions. "It's hard to know what's bluster and what's not with the Israelis," said a former U.S. official.

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Iran is set to allow a team of UN nuclear inspectors into the country, and that, coupled with the recent rescue of Iranian sailors by a US ship, seems to be keeping the pot from boiling over. However, Israel won't be satisifed so long as Iran continues to enrich uranium -- and if these reports are to be believed, it's only a matter of time before the covert war that seems to be taking place escalates into real fighting. 

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