In international affairs, the best threats are often left unpublicized. In his State of the Union speech this week, President Bush signaled to the Iranians in no uncertain terms that America will not let it develop nuclear arms.
Behind the scenes, the White House reportedly tells Tehran's leaders that, unless they stop messing around in Iraq, we will take the fight directly to Iran.
Rumor mongering or legitimate diplomatic demarche?
Even if there's no intention on following through, this threat - if actually delivered - can be a smart play on Bush's part.
First, the Iranians expect it. Not to do so signals we're more nervous about the surge strategy than we're letting on.
Hard, I know.
Second, when you've got it, flaunt it. We can strike Iran at will, given our air superiority. Plus, we Americans in general and Bush-Cheney in particular are known as the bomb-happy sort. So the Iranians must seriously consider our threat.
Third, when they're unsure, make 'em really uncertain. Bush and Cheney have gone out of their way to state that neither is willing to leave office with Iran grasping nuclear weapons - the second bird they'd hope to kill with this stone.
On nukes, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who just suffered a worse mid-term election than Bush, is being publicly chastised by mullahs clearly worried that he's writing checks with his mouth that their regime can't cash.
So why not turn the tables on him now? Richard Nixon employed this tactic during the Vietnam War: letting your enemies wonder just how crazy you might be.
In the Mideast, where conspiracy theories reign supreme, everyone hears what they believe and believes what they hear.
So with chief neocon Richard Perle boasting this week at Israel's pre-eminent security conference that the Bush administration is committed to going to war against Iran to derail its nuclear program, consider that chain good and yanked.
Bush and Cheney have entertained all these arguments by now because they've been building the public case for military action against Iran for well over a year.
Hill Republicans are already pushing Iran as a litmus test for 2008 to make the Democrats seem weak on something other than Iraq, where that charge now fails with voters.
If it doesn't make sense to sit down with the Iranians to talk about Iraq because they sense our vulnerability there, then why should threats work?
The Iranians realize the surge is mostly about covering our tracks politically before the long drawdown begins.
The Bush administration surged similar sums of personnel in the recent past to no effect, so threatening escalation this time comes off as hollow, especially given the American public's overwhelming opposition to the latest surge.
I suspect Ahmadinejad couldn't be happier with this possible turn of events, because nothing would reawaken his dream to reignite revolutionary fervor among the masses better than a nasty air strike from the Great Satan. I can just see Al-Jazeera's video.
The mullahs, who believe the bomb will offer them protection from an all-out invasion (go figure), have got to be fairly confident on the outcome, having already dispersed Iran's nuclear effort across numerous, deep-underground sites.
Sure, we could set the program back some time, but we'd never be quite sure exactly what our bombing accomplished.
That's the rub for Bush and every president who follows: Iran's far enough along in its well-bunkered nuclear program that the only way America can confidently take it out - absent the all-out invasion - is to employ nuclear weapons.
That means Tehran has already achieved - however asymmetrically - a form of nuclear deterrence against us.
For Tehran's leaders, the risk here would seem acceptable, especially since, no matter which way it ends (bluff called or threat executed), Iran can later argue that its standing up to the Americans was the big reason why we pulled back from Iraq.
When we don't follow up with any ground troops, the mullahs will claim their bomb kept Iranians safe.
If Bush decides to bomb Iran conventionally, all we end up accomplishing is to: (1) strengthen the regime domestically; (2) encourage the mullahs to ramp up their proxies' violence in Iraq and elsewhere; and (3) confirm the worldview that having nukes is crucial to scaring off America's military interventions.
Too risky? Depends on how much you trust Bush's judgment now.