By ANTHONY HALL
Intimidation is the name of the game in the Middle East, and the game is played on every stage imaginable.
The time line in 2012 begins in early January with the European Union agreeing to join the United Stated in imposing tougher sanctions on Iran that target the country's economic lifeline, its oil exports, as a means of unmasking and putting a stop to a suspected nuclear weapons program.
It is a trying, tedious and dangerous game. It includes Cold War-like strategies that sound slightly absurd, such as the United States and Canadian delegations walking out on a speech at the United Nations by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran retaliating soon thereafter by warning its citizens not to travel to Canada due to anti-Iranian criminal groups that would do harm to Iranian visitors.
Throughout the year, the United States ratcheted up its sanctions from time to time, like a boa constrictor clenching tighter every time its victim tried to exhale -- or in this case, tried to export oil. Reports, meanwhile, surfaced Iran was driving trucks of oil into Iraq and mixing its own brand of crude with Iraqi oil to have it smuggled elsewhere -- a seemingly bizarre way to move volumes of oil.
Just as odd-sounding, Iran announced this year it would have its filmmakers boycott the Oscar awards in Hollywood, Calif., in 2013, a little spite after Asghar Farhadi's drama "A Separation," won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2012.
International sanctions, as it happens, require marketing, like any other political initiative. That left U.S. authorities to claim the sanctions were working while Iranian officials scoffed at that idea.
"The important thing is that we are today on the path of all-out progress and growth and we are moving fast to reach the stand and position that the Iranian nation deserves," President Ahmadinejad said in late October, denying the sanctions were having much effect. But then, he also blamed the Western governments for the collapse of the rial, which fell to its lowest position ever against the U.S. dollar this year, provoking riots in the streets in some cities.
Supreme religious leader Ali Khamanei also denied the sanctions had any impact on the tranquility within Iran and the Oil Minister Mohammad-Ali Khatibi flat out rebuked an Energy Information Administration report that said Iranian oil exports had dropped from 2.2 million barrels of oil per day to 860,000 due to the sanctions.
The report said Iran was down to China, India, South Korea, Japan and Turkey as customers, but Khatibi in mid-October said, Iran's oil exports "are the same as previous months and the situation is stable."
The long-term argument is stability of the region, but that doesn't stop the United States from exploiting divisions, when it serves the U.S. agenda. For its part, Washington de-listed the People's Mujahedin of Iran as a terrorist organization this year, presumably because any thorn in Iran's side is considered a friend these days, even a group that cheered the return of the Ayatollah Khomeini after the 1979 revolution and was given sanctuary by Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war.
But this is what happens when you run with a rough crowd and by December it was reported the Israeli air force, in response to the tension, was planning to switch its overall strategy from defense to offense.
The Jerusalem Post reported the Israel's air force was, "pushing ahead with its strategic assumption that offense, rather than defense, will be the decisive factor in the next confrontation, in which Hezbollah [which is supplied by Iran] and its considerable arsenal of rockets may well be involved."
In Israel in early fall, a poll found a majority of respondents indicated they believed a war with Iran was highly possible. In addition, half of the respondents indicated Israel's future was uncertain should a war break out.
The argument with Iran is more than a passion play of diplomatic posing. Iran repeatedly has asserted its right to enrich as much uranium as it likes for peaceful purposes, but clashed repeatedly with U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors and doubled the number of centrifuges at the Fordow processing facility, which struck many as an alarming and provocative gesture.
For all the economic damage to the oil industry, however debatable that may be, IAEA head Yukiya Amano said in November the sanctions appeared to be having no impact on Iran's nuclear program.
Similar to the months leading up to the Iraqi war, Iranian officials are now accused of simply stalling for time and restricting the movement of IAEA inspectors for unlikely reasons. Meanwhile, cooperation is right around the corner, officials insist.
Iranian Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations Es'haq Al-e-Habib said his country is prepared to retaliate against any attack on its soil.
The United States, meanwhile, this year became willing to stock the neighborhood with missiles.
Reversing what was previously a focus on keeping Israel armed with the latest weaponry in the region, the United States is hoping to arm a six-country network of anti-missile defense systems that means big dollars for U.S. corporations and many more hot weapons systems among members of the so-called Gulf Cooperation Council.
U.S. contractors are now waiting to sign deals with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, which signed a $1.86 billion order for an American made anti-missile defense system in December 2011.
And Khamenei, can rattle a sword with the best of them.
"They pretend that the sanctions will be lifted if the Iranian nation gives up nuclear energy. They lie," he said. "They make decisions out of grudge and aversion [toward Iran] and impose irrational sanctions."