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 that included the first threats to block Gulf oil tankers. Ground forces also were sent on winter war games against what a Tehran military spokesman called a "hypothetical enemy" with U.S. forces just over the border in Afghanistan.
And the Revolutionary Guard by far the strongest military force in Iran said it will send its ships for more exercises in February near the Strait of Hormuz, which funnels down to a waterway no wider than 30 miles (50 kilometers) at the mouth of the Gulf. The U.S. and allies have told Iran that any attempts to blockade the strait would invite retaliation.
In response, Iran's defense minister, Gen. Ahmad Vahidi, tried to shift the blame to the presence of Western forces in the region.
"The point is if anybody wants to jeopardize security of the Persian Gulf, then it will be jeopardized for all," the website of state TV quoted Vahidi as saying Sunday.
For many Iranians, sanctions that could target Iran's oil exports are disturbingly reminiscent of the U.N.-imposed limits on Iraq's oil industry in the 1990s.
Mahmoud Shekari, the owner of a bookshop in the wealthy Tehran neighborhood of Vanak, sniffed: "If we cannot sell our oil, why should others be able to export?"
Ninia Eskandari, a 20-year-old music student, boasted that the "Strait of Hormuz is ours. ... We can block it if others want to damage us."
For the moment, it's unlikely to reach that potentially explosive point, analysts said.
Iran naval forces are significantly outgunned by Western flotillas, including the U.S. 5th Fleet based in Bahrain that can draw on aircraft carriers and other warships in the Indian Ocean and taking part in anti-piracy patrols off the Horn of Africa. Britain is also deploying one of its biggest destroyers, HMS Daring, to the Gulf.
"Iran knows it cannot realistically close off the strait," said Paul Rogers, who follows international defense affairs at Bradford University in Britain. "It can, however, try to keep Western forces guessing and on edge. They are good at doing that."
Iran also knows that blocking oil flow in the Gulf would bring serious self-inflicted wounds. Iran counts on oil for about 80 percent of its foreign currency earnings. Any disruptions would immediately start draining Iran's treasury and leave its main oil customers, including China, India and South Korea, scrambling for new suppliers. As Iranian affairs analyst Afshin Molavi quipped: Closing the strait for Iran would be "akin to a man purposely blocking a coronary artery."
Iran's increased military focus is also, in some ways, a reply to threats of possible pre-emptive strikes against its nuclear sites.
In November, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said his country will not "take any option off the table," a clear reference to military action. Last week, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called for Israel to "work together" with Washington on emphasizing diplomatic and economic pressures on Iran.
The goal of the current showdown seems aimed at making the U.S. and Europe think twice about implementing tough new sanctions that take aim at Iran's Central Bank and ability to make oil sales. Iran's economy minister called it "economic war."
Iran already portrays itself as locked in a battle of wits against alleged Western agents and plots.
On Monday, state television said a former U.S. Marine interpreter, Amir Mirzaei Hekmati, has been sentenced to death after being convicted of being a CIA spy. The Obama administration rejected the claims against Hekmati, an Iranian-American born in Arizona, and called the prosecution a political ploy.
Last month, Iran managed to capture a sophisticated CIA drone, known as RQ-170 Sentinel, and displayed the apparently intact aircraft on state TV alongside a banner that read "The U.S. cannot do a damn thing" a quotation from Iran's late supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Another banner depicted the American flag with skulls instead of stars.
Iran also has accused the U.S., Israel and their allies of waging cyberwarfare campaigns targeting nuclear facilities and being behind the killings of at least two Iranian scientists since 2010. Iran insists, however, that a Nov. 12 explosion at an ammunition depot that killed the top Revolutionary Guard missile commander and at least 20 others was an accident despite persistent speculation that it was sabotage.
"In this climate of feeling under siege, the Revolutionary Guard has found fertile ground to take control of policies and strategies," said Theodore Karasik, a security expert at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. "How Iran deals with the sanctions and the West is now all dictated, in one way or another, by the military."
It's been taking shape for years. The Revolutionary Guard whose network stretches from Iran's missile programs to neighborhood militias has always held a privileged role in policy-making as guardians of the cleric-led establishment. But the Guard's sway was sharply expanded after it took charge of the crackdown on the opposition after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election in June 2009.
The Guard's planned naval exercises next month near the Strait of Hormuz following similar war games by the regular navy that began in December are certain to reinforce the perception that Iran's theocracy is increasingly comfortable with letting the military set the tone, said security analyst Karasik.
"The bigger questions now are: How far will the Revolutionary Guard go with the upcoming naval drills and other actions to challenge the U.S. and the West?" he said. "How far are they willing to go to push back against the Western pressures?"
Ehsan Ahrari, a political analyst and commentator based in northern Virginia, said Iran's military is seen as the best option to "unite the country" as sanctions bite deeper and Washington seeks to turn up the heat on Tehran's leadership.
"Iran and the United States are playing their games," he said. "One is full of hubris and the other is full of pride and awful resentment."
A cartoon in the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper The National shows Iran and the U.S. gesturing at each from respective lecterns. The microphones were drawn to represent matches.