Or Else What, Exactly?

When you have any number of alternatives to choose from and your opponent believes that you might actually exercise any of them, deliberate ambiguity can be a valuable negotiating tool. It preserves your options and may cause your opponent to expend resources he otherwise might not feel the need to. When you don’t have an array of alternatives or your alternatives are not credible, it’s just bluster. Which is this?

Shortly after coming to office in January, Mr Obama made an overture to Iran, saying that if it and countries like it were “willing to unclench their fists, they will find an extended hand from us”.

But Israel says Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions remain its number-one concern and in recent weeks the US has expressed dismay about Iran’s suppression of protests over disputed presidential elections.

On Monday, Mr Gates said the US offer to Iran was “not open-ended”, and added that President Obama was hoping for a response, “perhaps by the time of the UN General Assembly” in September.

Mr Barak cautioned that “no option” had been removed in its handling of Iran – suggesting military force remained a possibility – though “priority should be given still to diplomacy and sanctions”.

What are the practical alternatives? We suspended substantial trade with Iran 30 years ago. Appeals to the United Nations Security Council for additional sanctions against Iran are likely to be blocked by Russia or China. Our European allies have substantial trade with Iran which they’re unlikely to curtail as their own economies languish.

Are we going to bomb Iran? Or invade? Either course of action is likely to cause Iran’s people to rally around their government even as that government has shown signs of weakness due to internal conflict.

Coming to the negotiating table is not a dentist’s appointment. The Iranian government doesn’t need reminders. If there’s some concrete actions we’re planning to take against the Iranians, we should take them. We shouldn’t bluster.

FILED UNDER: General, ,
Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.


  1. What if bluster is the only weapon you are willing to use?

  2. Alex Knapp says:

    Is it that hard to accept that the costs of preventing Iran from having a nuclear weapon outweigh the costs of letting them have one?

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    Apparently it is for the Obama Administration, Alex. In the last three days Secretary of Defense Gates made the statement cited above and Secretary of State Clinton reiterated the position that a nuclear-armed Iran was unacceptable.

  4. As I recall a nuclear-armed North Korea was also “unacceptable.”

    To paraphrase Inigo Montoya,”Presidents keep using that word. I do not think it means what they think it means.”

  5. Michael says:

    If there’s some concrete actions we’re planning to take against the Iranians, we should take them.

    Are you implying immediately?

  6. Furhead says:

    Acting unstable is also a good negotiating tool, which I believe Nixon used to his advantage IIRC. But I think that is really hard to feign that these days – as President you need to appear stable for most of your other responsibilities.

  7. Brett says:

    Realistically, the US has no options while large numbers of US Troops are next door in Iraq – they don’t particularly want to lose troops to Iranian retaliation.

    Sanctions are a dead issue, and in fact, Iran is an example of why I think “open-ended” sanctions (sanctions without an explicit, locked-in ending time) are worthless. Eventually, people start ignoring them and they degrade in effectiveness.

  8. An Interested Party says:

    What if bluster is the only weapon you are willing to use?

    Do tell what other weapons (that wouldn’t cause us more harm than good with their use) are available…