As fear over Iran's nuclear intentions continues to grow, it's time for responsible world leaders to exercise caution.

Yes, efforts to discourage Iran from seeking a nuclear weapon need to continue. But just as important, steps should be taken to avoid a war with the Mideast nation.

There is no clear consensus on how close Iran is to developing a nuclear weapon, or on whether Iranian leaders have even made the political decision to try.

As recently as Sunday, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said, "Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No. But we know that they're trying to develop a nuclear capability, and that's what concerns us. And our red line to Iran is: Do not develop a nuclear weapon. That's a red line for us."

It should be. A nuclear-armed Iran could trigger an arms race throughout the volatile Mideast, as regional rivals such as Saudi Arabia seek to keep up.

Although Iran's intentions are unclear, it would not be surprising if its insecure regime, surrounded by nations that have undergone regime change due to international intervention or domestic upheaval, tried to ensure its survival by developing a nuclear weapon.

In November, the International Atomic Energy Agency weighed in, stating that: "Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear device."

The hope is that internationally integrated diplomatic and economic efforts will convince Iran that the cost of ignoring warnings from the United States and its allies is simply too high. On that front, ongoing efforts are encouraging.

In June, the U.N. Security Council imposed its fourth round of economic sanctions. In November, the United States and other Western nations began isolating Iran from the international financial system with coordinated sanctions against its banking sector.

And this month many European nations edged toward embargoing Iranian oil altogether. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has encouraged several Asian nations, which are even more dependent on Iranian oil, to decrease their purchases.

Some oil-producing countries in the Persian Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, have signaled that they may be able to increase their oil supplies on the world markets.

There are also covert strategies underway.

Technological efforts, such as the deployment of the "Stuxnet worm" computer virus that may have degraded or destroyed 20 percent of Iran's nuclear centrifuges, continue.

Five Iranian nuclear scientists have been assassinated. The U.S. State Department condemned the killings and denied any involvement.

Iranian officials have tacitly admitted that the sanctions are hurting the country's economy. Accordingly, their rhetoric, and actions, are becoming more bellicose.

Iran warned an American aircraft carrier that it should not return through the Strait of Hormuz. It has threatened to close the strait, through which up to 20 percent of the world's oil supply flows.

And this week Iran announced that it would execute an American it had convicted for spying for the CIA. The Obama administration denied that he was a spy and rightly called for his immediate release.

The increasing tensions heighten the chance of miscalculation by both sides.

President Obama must continue to lead the multinational isolation effort, while at the same time not letting domestic politics keep him from a direct dialogue with Iran, if the opportunity unexpectedly presents itself.

For their part, some of the GOP candidates vying to replace Obama need to temper their overheated rhetoric about bombing Iran's nuclear facilities.

Coordinated global diplomacy -- not bombs -- offers a better chance for success.

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