The war of words between the United States and Iran is escalating, with much of it, as always, for domestic consumption—President Barack Obama against his hawkish Republican rivals, and various Iranians in competition within Iran’s fractured politics. Still, the bluster and toughened sanctions are worrisome. There’s little to no chance, practically zero, that the United States will attack Iran in 2012. But what’s worrisome is that Iran, feeling backed into a corner and under assault—the United States is threatening its lifeline by moving to cut off its oil exports and sanction its Central Bank’s transaction with financial institutions worldwide, while yet another of its nuclear scientists was assassinated this month—might lash out militarily or via terrorism of its own. Or Israel might decide to take matters into its own hands. In either case, it’s likely to lead to a full-fledged US-Iran war.

Strangely enough, it’s all happening just as it appears that talks between Iran and the P5+1 world powers might be restarting and it appears that a delegation from the International Atomic Energy Agency will visit Iran later this month.

Like the Bush administration before it, the Obama administration is more than well aware of Israel’s ability to bomb some of Iran’s nuclear research sites. (Bush administration officials repeatedly warned Israel not to do so, and Obama’s team has done the same since 2009.) According to the January 14 Wall Street Journal,

U.S. defense leaders are increasingly concerned that Israel is preparing to take military action against Iran, over U.S. objections, and have stepped up contingency planning to safeguard U.S. facilities in the region in case of a conflict. President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other top officials have delivered a string of private messages to Israeli leaders warning about the dire consequences of a strike.

The Journal article notes that in response to US pleadings, the Israelis have been “noncommittal.”

Outrageous as it might be that Israel, a supposed ally, would refuse to cooperate openly with the United States on a matter of such grave importance, it also appears that Israel is openly seeking to sabotage the possibility of US-Iran negotiations. The latest assassination of an Iranian scientist in north Tehran, via a bomb attached to his automobile by a motorcycle-riding terrorist, came one day after the arrival of a top State Department official, Bill Burns, in Turkey, part of an attempt by the Obama administration to restart the long-stalled negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 world powers. The timing of that act, which provoked great anger in Iran, was probably calculated to inflame opinion so that diplomacy, once again, fails.

The United States did deny responsibility for the assassination outright, but it failed to condemn it in strong terms. If that’s because the United States is trying to handle its seemingly uncontrollable ally with kid gloves, that’s an enormous mistake. Terrorism is terrorism, and killing Iranian scientists, inserting computer worms in its control systems, and the explosion that killed one of its leading rocket experts in 2011 are clearly acts of war. If Obama thinks that he can tolerate such behavior by Israel, or worse, abet it, and then talk Israel out of bombing Iran, then he’s wrong.

As Laura Rozen reported for Yahoo, a large-scale set of military maneuvers between the United States and Israel, set for later this year, has been postponed or canceled. Though both sides downplay the cancellation, hopefully it’s intended as a message to the Israelis that they need to behave themselves.