Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a divisive figure in his country, says analyst Meir Javedanfar.

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Tension is building over Iran's nuclear program, and there are fears of military action

Tehran says it's pursuing nuclear energy for civilian use, but the U.S. isn't buying it

Analysts explain what they think could happen in the year ahead: Is war inevitable?

CNN  — 

In the face of economic sanctions and international condemnation, Iran remains defiant over its nuclear energy program.

It has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, a major passageway for much of the world’s oil, in retaliation for any embargo. And it has vowed to punish the United States and Israel, accusing them of being connected to the recent assassinations of some Iranian nuclear scientists.

U.S. and Israeli officials have denied having anything to do with the mysterious killings, but they’re not backing down on their hard-line stance.

“I think there is consensus now in most of the capitals of the world that Iran should not be allowed to turn into a military nuclear power,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Saturday. “There is a consensus, at least in the West and North America, that no option should be removed off the table in regard to dealing with the threat. We feel the same.”

Tehran insists it’s pursuing nuclear energy for civilian purposes, not for military use. The U.S. and its allies aren’t buying it.

Last month, Obama’s former national security adviser said he thought this could be the year that things finally come to a head.

“I think 2012 has seen itself as the year that Iran has got to be dealt with one way or the other,” said James L. Jones, speaking at a panel discussion in Washington.

But what way will that be? Will a peaceful solution present itself, or will the situation devolve into a military conflict? reached out to five experts for their opinion and analysis.

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Alterman: One rogue action could lead to war
Jon B. Alterman is director and senior fellow of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He has lectured in more than 25 countries on subjects related to the Middle East and U.S. policy toward the region.

The biggest obstacle to understanding what will happen with Iran is the uncertainty every side feels about the potential actions of every other side.

The Iranians, the Israelis, the Americans and others are each trying to preserve ambiguity. The Iranians do not want anyone to know how close they are to having a nuclear weapon – in fact, they insist they do not want one at all – and the Israelis do not want anyone to know the circumstances under which they would take military action. The United States has declared certain “red lines” – for example, blocking the Strait of Hormuz – but it has also made clear that those are not the only red lines. Each side is trying to demonstrate its determination while preserving its freedom of action.

Politics will create more uncertainty in 2012. Presidential and congressional elections in the United States, parliamentary elections in Iran, and the prospect of early elections in Israel (combined with confirmed or potential leadership changes in China, Russia, France and Germany) suggest that leaders will see things through a political prism.

Some argue that political transitions in the West may make it difficult for Western leaders to respond coherently to Iranian actions – that if the Iranians want to declare themselves a nuclear weapons state, this is the year. I think that is unlikely.

While the possibility remains that one side will pursue a limited war, it is more likely that the sides will stumble into a war that no side is seeking. Given the high alert on all sides, a rogue action or even a mistaken one can quickly turn into a shooting war.

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Javedanfar: Keep an eye on Iranian politics
Meir Javedanfar is an Iranian-Israeli Middle East analyst. He has guest-lectured on Iranian politics in five languages and more than 20 universities around the world. His writings can be found on his blog.

This looks to be a very difficult year for Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The external challenges are very serious. The Arab Spring has caused much damage to Iran’s standing in the Middle East, and Obama’s dual track of sanctions and diplomacy has brought isolation and very damaging economic sanctions.

But what is happening at home is far more important. This is the place to keep an eye on.

By backing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 2009 elections, Khamenei alienated many other parts of the regime. Since then, he has lived to regret that decision, as Ahmadinejad turned out to be a serious liability, both for the regime and for the supreme leader’s efforts to create consensus.

Ahmadinejad is not only a divisive figure; he is also ruining Iran’s economy with his populist economic policies, which until very recently was to keep interest rates low. By flooding the economy with such liquidity, Ahmadinejad contributed to the devaluation of the riyal, which is already suffering from loss of confidence because of the recent sanctions.

This will be the year that Khamenei will have to make a decision about Iran’s nuclear program. His current strategy of isolating Iran and not answering IAEA questions are justifying the sanctions that are ruining the country’s economy. The regime can live without its nuclear program, but not without its economy.

Even if Iran survives the sanctions, Khamenei will still have to solve the regime’s deepening divisions. This requires opening up the political system to allow other players within the system to take part, making the regime more transparent, and fighting corruption. This could be harder to confront than Israel’s military threats and Obama’s tough sanctions.

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Hunter: War doesn’t have to be inevitable
Shireen T. Hunter is a visiting professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. She has written several books on Iranian politics and Islam.

In the last few months, tensions between Iran and the United States have risen to alarming levels.

The U.S. and its allies are running out of nonmilitary options of pressuring Iran, and Iran is facing economic strangulation.

The two sides are moving perilously close to a situation where there seems to be only one option left: military confrontation. But war doesn’t have to be inevitable. Not if both sides show flexibility and put their national interests ahead of a misguided national pride.

The main stumbling block in achieving a compromise has always been the unspoken but ever-present U.S. feeling that Iran must be taught a lesson – that it should admit to its wrong ways and repent. Iran, meanwhile, has shied away from appearing to be buckling under U.S. pressure.

To overcome these psychological barriers, Iran must take concrete steps to alleviate U.S. fears regarding its nuclear program. The U.S., in turn, must provide Iran with what amounts to a diplomatic fig leaf. Examples could be broadening the scope of prospective talks beyond the nuclear issue and offering Iran real incentives – lifting sanctions rather than promising not to impose new sanctions.

Recent comments by both U.S. and Iranian officials seem to indicate that both sides now have a greater realization of the risks of brinkmanship and are willing to talk more seriously about their respective concerns.

For example, the tone of Iran’s most recent letter has reportedly been more conciliatory than earlier ones, and the letter didn’t impose any conditions for the resumption of talks. The U.S., for its part, characterized Iran’s position as encouraging.

These seemingly minor gestures have created a better atmosphere for future talks. If the talks are used wisely, 2012 might become the year that the U.S. and Iran begin serious efforts to defuse the crisis and perhaps even start a long-term process of normalizing their relations.

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Niknejad: Iran doesn’t want to lose face
Kelly Golnoush Niknejad is founder and editor-in-chief of Tehran Bureau, an independent source of news on Iran and the Iranian diaspora.

Tehran won’t sit idly by as the Obama administration continues its hard-line approach on Iran. There will probably be more threats, to choke up the Strait of Hormuz or retaliate outside of the Middle East, if the United States keeps clamping down and debilitating its economy.

Even when the hits come from Israel, as recent reports about its support of Jundullah or the assassination of Iran’s nuclear scientists appear to indicate, the finger-pointing will be directed at the United States.

That’s because it doesn’t do Iran much good to lash out at Israel. If Iran concedes Israel’s alleged role in the plots, they will put themselves under pressure to use their proxies, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, to lob missiles at it in retaliation.

Instead, Tehran will point the finger at the United States, hoping Washington will pressure Israel to stop.

Unless the leaders of Iran believe there’s a real possibility of regime change, they will not capitulate. They don’t want to lose face. Unlike the late shah, I can’t imagine Ayatollah Khamenei being coaxed to live out his days hiking in the Alps. He’ll fight to stay in power until the bitter end.

This heightened tension is very dangerous, especially given the lack of diplomatic relations between Iran and the United States. There is no hot line. There is no real channel of communication like there was with the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War. A misunderstanding or miscalculation may lead to a war.

And as many Iran watchers have pointed out, a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities does not necessarily mean the collapse of the regime. It may actually help it consolidate power in the face of domestic strife and clashes within its own camp. At least that’s what the war with Iraq did for it after the 1979 revolution.

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Clawson: The finish line is in sight
Patrick Clawson is director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he directs the Iran Security Initiative. He has authored 18 books or studies on Iran. His latest policy note on Iran can be found here.

Both Iran and the United States have approached the nuclear issue as a marathon, not as a sprint. But the finish line is in sight.

After 20 years of dispute, 2012 may well show whether Washington’s or Tehran’s approach has been more successful.

The U.S. strategy has been to demonstrate to Iran’s leaders that life gets worse every day that the impasse goes on. Washington secured U.N. sanctions on items with dual military and civilian uses, and it assembled a broad coalition of countries applying tough oil and financial sanctions.

Iran’s bellicose threats about blocking the Strait of Hormuz show that the sanctions have finally gotten its leaders’ attention. Iran’s Central Bank governor said the sanctions are worse than Iraq’s attacks during the Iran-Iraq war, and he compared Iran’s situation to the worst times faced by the earliest Muslims. If these sanctions do not lead Iran to negotiate, it is doubtful any sanctions will.

Iran’s approach has been to steadily but slowly develop its nuclear capacities, expecting the world to begrudgingly accept each small step forward.

President Bill Clinton spent eight years insisting Iran could never have a nuclear power plant, but eventually Washington relented. Today, Iran is acquiring impressive missile expertise and a stockpile of enriched uranium.

Within a few years, Iran will be treated by the world as a country that, if it does not already have nuclear warheads atop its missiles, could quickly do so. As that point nears, Iran has less reason to negotiate over the nuclear issue.