DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — In the high desert along Iran's Afghan border this week, soldiers from the powerful Revolutionary Guard practiced ambush tactics in subzero temperatures. Next month, the Guard's warships are expected to resume battle drills near Gulf shipping lanes that carry much of the world's oil.
Iran looks like a country preparing for war. But Tehran's leaders are already using whatever leverage they can muster — including military displays and threats to choke off Gulf oil tanker traffic — to counter international pressure against the Iranian nuclear program.
A month after Iran embarrassed Washington with the capture of a CIA spy drone, the messages from the Islamic Republic couldn't be clearer or more taunting: Tehran could turn the hook-shaped Strait of Hormuz into a dead end for tankers and hold the world economy hostage as payback for tighter U.S.-led sanctions.
Despite Iran's escalating tough talk, there are contradictions and complications that cast doubt on the likelihood of drastic military action by Tehran that could trigger a Gulf conflict. It also shows how much Iran's foreign policies are now shaped by its military commanders as the country views itself in a virtual state of war with Western powers and their allies.
It appears to be part of the kind of seesaw brinksmanship that has become an Iranian hallmark: Pushing to the edge with the West and then retreating after weighing the reactions.
"Iran sees pressures coming from all sides and sanctions seem to be taking a major bite," said Salman Shaikh, director of The Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. "Iran's military is stepping up as the outside threats increase. This could well be the year that defines the direction of the Iran showdown."
Iran has rolled out its troops and arsenals in an unprecedented display of military readiness. It wrapped up naval maneuvers earlier this month. Ground forces also were sent on winter war games — against what a Tehran military spokesman called a "hypothetical enemy."