By Jill Dougherty
Just what is Tehran up to?
It sentences an Iranian-American to death for alleged spying.
Announces it's begun enriching uranium at a heavily fortified underground facility.
Threatens to close the Strait of Hormuz, sending shivers down the spine of world oil markets.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad jets off to Latin America, visiting countries that love to take pot shots at the United States.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland calls Iran "desperate," dismissing the trip as "flailing around...to find new friends."
But some Iran-watchers are worried that desperation could cause Iran to make dangerous, unpredictable moves.
Karim Sadjapour with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace tells CNN "there's a Persian saying that, when you have wild cat trapped in room, leave the door open to let it out."
"Iran is cornered," he says.
Tehran is hurting, hit by stiff economic sanctions aimed at forcing it to "come clean," as Obama administration officials put it, on its nuclear program. The U.S. has imposed sanctions on banks that deal with Iran's Central Bank, and the European Union is close to imposing an embargo on Iranian oil exports.
Some U.S. lawmakers want the noose tightened even more. The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, says, "The Iranian threat is entering a new, even more dangerous stage."
Pointing to Iran's threats to close the Strait of Hormuz and to ratchet up its uranium enrichment, Ros-Lehtinen is calling for "immediate, comprehensive, crippling sanctions on the regime."
"An Iran with a nuclear breakout capability is an Iran with a nuclear weapon. We cannot delude ourselves into thinking we have time to spare."
Internally, the Iranian regime is under severe pressure. Inflation is surging. The deputy economy minister says inflation could reach 22% by the end of March. The Financial Times reports that official unemployment for those under 25 is 29.1 % but experts believe it could be double that.
The country holds parliamentary elections March 2 and, fearful of destabilization, the government is tightening surveillance of its Internet users.
Sadjapour warns that instability could have devastating consequences. There is "legitimate concern," he says, "that the hardliners in Tehran are purposely trying to provoke some type of a U.S. or Israeli attack on Iran in order to repair Iran's deep internal fissures, both between a disgruntled population against the regime and amongst Iran's political elites themselves."
Sadjapour calls that a "trap" that the United States and Israel "should be very careful about walking into."
Although Ahmadinejad's Latin American swing through Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and Ecuador is making headlines, several Iran experts downplay its impact. They note that the Iranian president is not visiting the region's heavyweights, Brazil and Argentina.
"I think this is for domestic consumption in his own country," Julia Sweig of the Council on Foreign Relations, tells CNN, "to show that he is not isolated, despite sanctions, and despite U.N. resolutions. In Latin America, generally, he doesn't really have much of a political base."
Stephen Johnson, director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, calls the trip an "opportunity to shore up solidarity."
"The current leaders of Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, and Ecuador," he writes, "have little but praise for the Iranian leader and share the Islamic Republic's objective of offsetting the influence of the United States on the world stage. They will likely continue to offer a platform to criticize Western ideas of democracy and free markets, both in meetings and as a base for Iran's hemispheric public diplomacy efforts."
A key figure is Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Johnson says. Chavez has helped Iran evade sanctions on banking and industries that support its military. "In private, Chavez could offer to help Iran sidestep the latest sanctions against its banks and oil exports," Johnson says.
The countries Ahmadinejad is visiting aren't doing it just to help him, Johnson says; they're also hoping for more aid from Tehran.
For Cuba, for example, Iran has supplied credit and loaned funds for transportation infrastructure improvements. Nicaragua got promises of money for a hospital, hydroelectric projects, and a dry canal between the Pacific and Atlantic coasts.
"In Venezuela," Johnson says, "it has gone much further, rehabilitating an old tractor plant, establishing a car factory, and constructing subsidized housing."
Have all these projects been carried out? That's not clear, Johnson says, but Iran's president is likely to bring more promises to his Latin American friends. And, caught in the stranglehold of tighter world pressure, Ahmadinejad needs all the friends he can get.
CNN's Jamie Crawford contributed to this story.