Under heavy pressure at home and abroad, the government of Iran is becoming increasingly bellicose.
Don't let the name fool you — war games are serious business.
That's especially true in the case of Iran, which completed a 10-day exercise Monday in the Persian Gulf during which it threatened to close international access to the Strait of Hormuz, a vital oil shipping lane.
The United States, naturally, took exception to Iran's threat to cut off the strait through which one-third of the world's oil shipments move, and it dispatched an aircraft carrier to let Iran know that the international waters would remain open to international shipping.
Iran never did follow up on its threat. Instead, it said it conducted a "mock" exercise on shutting down the strait and fired long-range missiles.
After the carrier, the USS John C. Stennis, which was accompanied by a battle group, left the gulf, Iran warned the carrier group had better not come back.
"We do not repeat our words twice," said Gen. Ataollah Salehi, chief of staff to the Iranian army.
A U.S. defense department spokesman said the U.S. will continue to maintain a presence in the gulf.
"The U.S. Navy operates under international maritime conventions to maintain a constant state of high vigilance in order to ensure the continued, safe flow of maritime traffic in waterways critical to global commerce," the spokesman said.
So that is that — at least for now. There certainly will be continuing friction between the U.S. and Iran, mostly because of sanctions on Iran that are beginning to take a toll on that country's economy.
The sanctions are intended to persuade Iran to abandon its quest for nuclear weapons. But, so far at least, all they have provoked is angry rhetoric from Iranian leaders.
Iran's military, like that in any country, is certainly free to conduct war games, and they would have been a non-event if not for the suggestion that Iranian officials would close the Strait of Hormuz as part of the exercise. That would be an intolerable infringement on international shipping, as Iran well knew. It couldn't have been surprised by the U.S. reaction.
So what is going on? Iran is a beleaguered country. Its despotic leadership is facing not only the consequences of the international economic sanctions but also of its own inflexible leadership.
A March parliamentary election has been scheduled, but elections don't mean much when they are conducted by an authoritarian government. Would-be reformers are urging their countrymen to boycott the vote, denouncing the entire process as a sham. Government officials reportedly fear that disputed elections could produce the kind of public demonstrations that have rocked other countries in the Middle East.
This combustible mix is creating great uncertainty about the future.
The religious zealots who run the country aren't likely to embrace real democracy or abandon their long quest for nuclear weapons unless they have no choice. At the same time, the international community is equally unlikely to ease up on the economic sanctions. That most likely means more rhetorical confrontations — at the very least — are dead ahead.