The United States and Iran appear to be on a collision course in the Middle East, firing off mixed messages that are raising world tension and roiling oil markets amid fears that an eventual confrontation may be military.
Both insist that war is not imminent, but their sharp words and provocative actions are stoking uncertainty as Washington and Tehran joust for strategic supremacy in the oil-rich region where American might — along with that of its top ally in the area, Israel — has long been dominant.
Concern spiked on Wednesday when Iran test-fired nine long- and medium-range missiles during war games in the Strait of Hormuz, aiming to show that it can retaliate against any U.S. or Israeli attack. The display followed a joint military exercise by Israel and Greece last month in the Mediterranean that many saw as a warning to Iran.
The Iranian missile tests drew a quick response from Washington, which said the launches were further reason not to trust a country that it already accuses of fomenting instability in Iraq, supporting Israel's foes and attempting to build nuclear weapons. The testing sent oil prices higher before they calmed down later in the day.
Leaders on both sides — President Bush and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — just this week tried to tamp down speculation that the use of force is inevitable.
As he nears the end of his presidency, Bush has said repeatedly that diplomacy is his preferred option to deal with any threat posed by Iran's nuclear program, although he has just as often refused to take the military option off the table. Ahmadinejad, who has often spoken of wiping Israel off the map, dismissed talk of war this week as a "funny joke."
"I assure you that there won't be any war in the future," he said Tuesday as he visited Malaysia.
After Wednesday's missile tests, the White House didn't fling out any new dire warnings to Iran but settled for saying that the testing was "completely inconsistent with Iran's obligations to the world" and served to further isolate the country.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stood clear of discussing possible military responses, arguing that the tests instead were proof that a proposed missile shield for Europe, a system that has drawn vehement opposition from Russia, is vital to defending U.S. interests and allies.
So why does speculation about conflict continue to grow?
A main reason may be that neither side appears able to judge the other's true intent.
U.S. officials say they can't discern Iran's motivations, citing the closed nature of the regime and ostensible differences among the country's hard-line Islamic religious leaders, its Revolutionary Guard and moderates. Some Iranian leaders may want peace, but not others, they say.
While Ahmadinejad tones down his rhetoric, others in Tehran have stepped up warnings of retaliation if Americans — or Israelis — launch military action against Iran's nuclear sites. They threaten to hit Israel and U.S. regional bases with missiles and to stop oil traffic through the vital gulf region.
"Our hands are always on the trigger, and our missiles are ready for launch," Gen. Hossein Salami, the Revolutionary Guard's air force commander, said Wednesday, according to state media.
At the same time, the Iranian leadership may face a similar quandary in judging U.S. intentions. While Bush, Gates and Rice are stressing diplomacy, other, more hawkish, elements of the administration, notably Vice President Dick Cheney, are using more bellicose language similar to that of Israeli officials, who have been more outspoken about the possible use of force.
The military options for the administration narrowed significantly earlier this year when a national intelligence estimate concluded that Iran had halted work on a nuclear weapon in 2003. That made it much more difficult for the administration to argue to allies that Iran posed an imminent threat. Still, in recent weeks, the administration has persuaded other countries to ratchet up economic pressure on Iran.
Information from the New York Times was used in this report.