Relations between the U.S. and Iran, always bad, worsened in January 2012 as Iran sentenced a captive American citizen to death and verified it was enriching uranium. Meanwhile, Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited American antagonists Venezuela and Cuba.
January's events came against a backdrop of American-led sanctions by western nations against Iran, whom they suspect of proceeding with a nuclear weapons program. The sanctions apparently began taking their toll, cutting Iran's vital oil revenues. As such, Iran's actions were perhaps reaction to the pressure.
American Citizen Sentenced to Death for Espionage
On January 9, Iran announced that it had convicted Iranian-American Amir Mirzaei Hekmati of espionage and sentenced him to death. The 28-year-old, Arizona-born former Marine, was captured in August 2011 when he went to Iran to visit his grandparents.
Iran claimed that Hekmati was a C.I.A. agent that the United States sent to spy on Iran. The U.S. denies the charge.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said the United States was still trying to independently confirm the sentence through Swiss authorities. The U.S. has not had normal relations with Iran since the hostage crisis, and it frequently uses the Swiss embassy as a liaison with Iran.
"If it is true that he has been so sentenced, we would condemn this verdict in the strongest terms, and we are working with all of our partners to convey that condemnation to the Iranian Government," said Nuland. "We've maintained from the beginning that the charges against him were a fabrication, and we call on the Iranian Government to release him immediately."
Hekmati's sentence, which he can appeal within 20 days, marks the first time Iran has condemned an American to death. However, it is not the first time Iran has held Americans prisoner, aside from the hostage crisis.
Most recently American hikers Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, whom Iran had convicted of espionage, were released in September 2011 after intermediaries arranged a "bail" for them. Fellow hiker Sarah Shourd, who was arrested along with Bauer and Fattal as they hiked near the Iraq-Iran border in 2009, was released earlier.
Hekmati's sentence may be so severe because of his military background. The sentence may also show Iran trying to get greater leverage over the United States in the face of the tightening sanctions.
Iran Confirmed Enriching Uranium
Meanwhile, Iran confirmed that it was enriching uranium at an underground site called Fordo. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) independently confirmed the claim.
Iranian engineers have apparently been able to enrich uranium to 20% purity at the Fordo plant. Physicists consider 20% a major step forward in the ability to make weapons-grade uranium.
"When you enrich to 20 percent, there is no possible reason for that if you're talking about a peaceful program," said Nuland. "So it generally tends to indicate that you are enriching to a level that takes you to a different kind of nuclear program."
The continued nuclear work reaffirms why western nations implemented sanctions in the first place. Simply, they wanted hold leverage over Iran and deprive it of income that the government could divert to its nuclear program.
Ahmadinejad Visits Latin America
At the same time, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stopped in Venezuela to visit ally President Hugo Chavez. Ahmadinejad's trip will also take him to Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Cuba.
The trip is gain support from Iran's known allies in the face of the western sanctions.
Perennial U.S.-hater Chavez took the opportunity to once again bash the United States.
"They [the U.S.] present us as aggressors," he said, but "Iran hasn't invaded anyone. Who has dropped thousands and thousands of bombs -- including atomic bombs?"
Ahmadinejad no doubt carefully chose his stops to irritate the United States. "They obviously carefully chose these countries to visit," said Nuland. "We are, meanwhile, calling on all of these countries to do what they can to impress upon the Iranian regime that the course that it's on in its nuclear dialogue with the international community is the wrong one."
Strait of Hormuz
All of that activity took place as Iran blustered over the Strait of Hormuz. Iran threatened to close the strait, a vital oil and trade passage, if the United States interfered with its naval war-games in late December. In announcing similar war-games for February, Iran made the same threat.
While Iran might be able to mine the strait and periodically stop or slow traffic, U.S. and other western navies could quickly reopen the passage.