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.