Iran's deputy navy commander Mahmoud Mousavi said on state television that his nation has "successfully test-fired long-range shore-to-sea and surface-to-surface missiles." The missile test came at the end of Iran's 10-day naval exercises, and against the backdrop of that country's threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, throttling international oil supplies.
Tehran also announced Sunday that it had successfully produced its first nuclear fuel rod. Iranian officials claim the reactor produces radioisotopes for cancer treatment but U.S. intelligence officials and inspectors and analysts with the International Atomic Energy Agency believe the country is edging ever closer to producing nuclear weapons.
The United States has tightened monetary sanctions on Tehran in an effort to stop the weapons program. Those sanctions and others imposed by the international community are creating financial stress on the government, analysts say, at the same time Iranian dissidents inspired by Arab Spring revolts are rattling the government from within.
That has created a combustible situation, especially in the face of a tepid reaction to Iranian aggression by the Obama administration, said James Carafano, senior defense analyst with the Heritage Foundation.
"Iran has a double motivation for turning up its aggressive stance toward the West," Carafano said. "The weakness shown by the Obama White House has only encouraged Iran to adopt a more reckless foreign policy. Meanwhile, with dissent growing at home and in neighboring Syria, Tehran has been looking for any excuse to focus on the 'external' enemy and divert attention from domestic problems."
President Obama signed economic sanctions against Iran's central bank on Dec. 31, and the European Union is considering banning oil imports from Iran at a vote on Jan. 30, according to news reports. Obama noted, however, that he was not in full agreement with the sanctions against Iran. The Obama administration and some European governments are concerned about increasing their own economic instability by risking a spike in oil prices that would come with a crisis in the Persian Gulf.
But U.S. military officials said it is time to show strength in dealing with Tehran. "It is imperative that U.S. policy not waver in regards to Iran," said a senior U.S. official. "Iran needs to know that U.S. policy will not tolerate their pursuit of nuclear weapons. 2012 will be a telling year regarding Iran, and regarding the [Obama] administration's handling of Iran."
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told CBS news in December that if Iran developed a nuclear weapon it would be a "red line" for the United States and Israel. He said military options were still on the table. Panetta's statements came after Israeli officials chided him for remarks he made on Dec. 2, that a strike on Iran would "consume the Middle East in a confrontation and a conflict that we would regret."
There are some signs that the United States and other nations like Israel are already at work to sabotage Tehran's nuclear programs. There have been reports of a number of explosions near nuclear facilities. This is on top of the impact of a computer worm known as Stuxnet that reports say seriously damaged a centrifuge facility in Iran. That worm may have set back Iran's nuclear program by a year or more, U.S. intelligence officials said.
Another option, which comes with a high risk quotient, would be to increase efforts to aid internal opposition groups with an eye toward deposing Tehran's government, experts said. A former top U.S. official with knowledge of the region said "opposition movements within Iran by Iranians are already underway ... but it is up to the U.S. to take advantage of such movements and use them to its benefit before a military strike becomes the only option."
Some officials said the best chance to succeed at fomenting a coup in Iran may have already passed.
"We failed in 2009 to aid Iranian opposition against the regime," a U.S. official said. "The administration has learned the hard way that talk with Iran is futile -- they are intent on pursuing nuclear weapons capabilities."
Those and other options to disrupt Iran's nuclear program, or the Tehran government itself, must be pushed hard in 2012, analysts said. And U.S. intelligence officials said the Obama administration must be prepared for any escalation of tensions out of Tehran. "Nothing surprises us anymore with Iran," a U.S. official said.
Sara A. Carter is The Washington Examiner's national security correspondent. She can be reached at email@example.com.