Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press
President Barack Obama pauses as he addresses thousands at the opening session of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's (AIPAC) annual policy conference Sunday, March 4, 2012, in Washington. Obama said the U.S. will not hesitate to attack Iran with military force to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon, but he cautioned that "too much loose talk of war" recently has only helped Tehran and driven up the price of oil.

The dictionary defines "diplomacy" as the "art and practice of conducting negotiations," but one incisive wag said the term is really "the art of saying 'nice doggie' till you can find a rock."

So who has the stones required to stop Iran from acquiring the nuclear weapons its needs, not for deterrence as its apologists claim, but to escalate war against Israel, America and the West?

The United States does, but President Barack Obama is not eager to utilize them. That's understandable: Americans are war-weary.

But if Iran's rulers do acquire nuclear weapons on Obama's watch, and if that leads to a 21st century bloodier than the 20th, history will not judge him kindly.

It is possible that Israelis will do the job others don't want to do. Obama, in his American Israel Public Affairs Committee remarks, recognized the legitimacy of their concerns, acknowledging that "no Israeli government can tolerate a nuclear weapon in the hands of a regime that denies the Holocaust, threatens to wipe Israel off the map and sponsors terrorist groups committed to Israel's destruction."

Israelis would like nothing better than to resolve this conflict diplomatically. But Iran's rulers refuse even to talk with leaders of the Jewish state. Their intransigence is seldom noted, much less criticized, by those most enthusiastic about the possibility of a diplomatic solution.

Between diplomacy and warfare lie economic sanctions. Israeli leaders have long been strongly supportive of the tough measures produced by Congress on a bipartisan basis and signed by Obama. Europeans, too, have imposed stiff sanctions.

But sanctions — and diplomacy and warfare, too, actually — are means, not ends. No one with a lick of sense backs sanctions because they are confident sanctions will cause Iran's rulers to forgo the most effective weapon ever invented (by infidels, of course) to project power.

So what's the point? For one, sanctions, and the continuing debate they provoke, remind the "international community" of the threat Iran's theocrats pose. Second, it's always useful to weaken an enemy, and sanctions have been enfeebling Iran's oil-based economy. Finally, should more kinetic measures be used to stop Iran's nuclear-weapons program, it will be vital for sanctions to be in place — and remain in place — during whatever diplomatic palaver follows.

Opponents of sanctions and more forceful measures don't get this. They argue that sanctions are an impediment to diplomacy. Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institute, wrote recently that "the United States cannot hope to bargain with a country whose economy it is trying to disrupt and destroy." The Iranians, she added, "cannot be nudged into a constructive negotiating process by measures that exacerbate their vulnerability."

She has it exactly backward, as anyone who has ever been involved in negotiations should recognize. If we want Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to stop doing what they are doing — building nuclear weapons, supporting terrorists, threatening neighbors, oppressing their people — we must do more than "nudge" them. We must offer them something of great value.

What would Maloney have us put on the table other than an end to sanctions and no use of force — or no further use of force? What else does she imagine they would accept in exchange for the chance to possess weapons they see as key to achieving the goals of Iran's Islamic Revolution — which include hegemony in the Middle East in the short run and "a world without America" and the extermination of Israel somewhere along the way?

When reasonable, peace-loving people are involved, the "art and practice of conducting negotiations" can lead to compromise and the resolution of conflicts. But when dealing with despots, there are no talking cures. Iran's rulers see the U.S. as materialistic, decadent, weak-willed and tired of the burdens of leadership. They are convinced Obama will accept what he has called "unacceptable," that he will allow the world's worst dictators — and leading sponsors of terrorism — to arm themselves with the world's worst weapons.

A new round of diplomacy is scheduled to begin next month in Geneva. For there to be any small chance of success, Iran's rulers must feel pressured and vulnerable. They must take seriously the possibility that Americans and/or Israelis have rocks and are prepared to use them.

Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Email [email protected]