In a lavish ceremony in Tehran, Iran's president announced on 15 February 2012 that Iran is producing a more efficient class of uranium-enrichment centrifuges as well as fuel rods for its nuclear-research reactor in the capital - which takes 20% enriched uranium compared with the 4% required for civil nuclear-power generation.
There is a strong element of symbolism about both of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's statements. After all, centrifuge development has been ongoing for some years, and the Tehran reactor was originally supplied by the United States during the Shah's regime before the revolution of 1978-79.
Yet both developments, even if they do not prove the existence of a nuclear-weapon programme, do give some indication of the extent of Iran's nuclear capabilitie; and at a time when tensions between Iran and the United States and Israel are rising, and international sanctions are having a real economic impact on the domestic economy, the president's public stance strikes a requisite note of defiance (see Scott Shane and Robert F Worth, "Aggressive Acts by Iran Signal Pressure on its Leadership", New York Times, 16 February 2012).
The decision to go for a nuclear weapon may not yet have been taken, but enough is being read into Iran's approach to stoke increasingly apparent concern in Washington. The signals from the White House and the national-security council suggest that Barack Obama's administration still would not welcome large-scale Israel military action against Iran, yet it is sufficiently engaged to have chosen to deploy substantial militaery forces of its own in the region.
It is now confirmed that a third American carrier battle-group will join the two on station in the region as the USS Enterprise flotilla heads east around the end of February (see "America, Israel, Iran: signals of war", 3 February 2012). The existing groups - centred on the USS Carl Vinson and the USS Abraham Lincoln - have been on station for only a few weeks; this means that the US navy can call on all three battle-groups at least until June-July 2012, and in addition has yet another group available at short notice from its Pacific fleet. The French carrier-strike group centred on the Charles de Gaulle is also expected in the region.
As if this concentration of forces was not enough, Israeli sources claim that major US troop contingents are being added to those already in western Gulf states. They include air-force and army units deployed to the large base close to the northern tip of Masirah island in Oman.
The attacks on Israeli diplomats in Georgia and India, and a possible attempt in Thailand, further fuel the sense of a confrontation escalator. Israel has been quick to blame Iran for the attacks, just as Iran blames Israel for the murder of several nuclear scientists in Tehran. The fact that both are probably right sharpens the worry that a process is underway with no reverse gear.
The AIM danger
The question of timing, and political timing at that, is an acutely important part of what is happening.
Israel's prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu will address the conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the key institutional player among Washington's pro-Israel interest-groups, to be held on 4-6 March. He will no doubt use the opportunity to take soundings across the American political spectrum to assess the level of support for Israel over Iran. A general election will be held in Israel at latest by September though maybe earlier, and the US's presidential election follows on 6 November.
The key period in which the risk of a conflict may be at its height is therefore between April and August. If by September a major crisis (up to the outbreak of war) has been avoided, then there may be a decline in tension - just as occurred in mid-2006 when a confrontation seemed likely (though in the event a hugely destructive if brief war between Israel and Hizbollah followed in July-August).
The current accumulation of military power and personnel around Iran, and all the collateral events that are contributing to the sense of mounting danger, do not make war inevitable; but they do underscore a point made often in this series of columns, that in the right (or wrong) circumstances a conflict can break out even without that being consciously decided or planned for at any given moment. Their dynamics may be captured by a practised acronym, namely "AIMs" - denoting accidents, incidents and mavericks.
In tense periods, accidents tend to be more common than at other times. In part this is because the very existence of tension can lead to misrepresentations and miscalculations, especially when military planners are operating on the basis of worse-case scenarios.
Sudden incidents can take many and varied forms, and unhappily tend to be used as pretexts for rapid escalation. Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Operation Peace for Galilee, which followed the shooting of Israel's ambassador to London, is an example; it led to the siege of West Beirut, the deaths of well over 10,000 civilians and an occupation of most of southern Lebanon which eventually became unsustainable and ended in a messy withdrawal three years later.
The mavericks factor connotes the tendency of an individual, small group or faction that for its own reasons wants war to become an influential actor even as wiser counsels may still urge caution. In the present context there assuredly are elements in Israel, in Hizbollah and in Iran (especially the Revolutionary Guard Corps) that may wish to provoke conflict - and for which accidents or incidents may provide the necessary spark for escalation.
The talking cure
The unavoidable reality is that a roughly six-month period of great dangers is ahead. The positive aspect is that intensive efforts behind the scenes are being and will be made to bring the sides together, with much of this effort focused on increasing trust between key representatives of the United States and Iran. These mediators are operating in a difficult context where the unpredictable risks set by those accidents, incidents and mavericks are ever present. That only emphasises the importance of their work.
If a conflict can be avoided in these perilous months then a breathing-space that offers the potential for serious de-escalation may ensue, even if the central antagonisms remain to be resolved. If not, then 2012 could well see the start of another protracted war in an already turbulent region, which will crush lives and hopes alike. Mediation is never more necessary than now.