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The text below is a comment that I've excerpted from the comment section of a newspaper article:

Not too surprising. Mohammed bin Zayed is doing to the US what empires have done for thousands of years - take advantage of divided and weakened nations. He showed disrespect to outgoing President Obama because he knew incoming Trump would not care, or perhaps even welcome it. Obama would never have condoned a foreign monarch disrespecting outgoing President Bush in 2008.

What was Zayed's beef with Obama? For daring to act in America's best interest viz a viz Iran. MBZ would prefer to maintain indefinite sanctions that failed to halt Iran's nuclear weapons program.

So yes, MBZ and these nations pretend to be friends with America, that is, until we begin to act in our best interests and refuse to accept that their personal enemies are necessarily our enemies as well. Zayed will play Trump and Kushner like a fiddle; after all he's been dealing with world leaders for 30 years, when most members of Trump's inner circle were still in diapers.

Question: What does the modal would in the second paragraph express?

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We very often write or speak about preferences in a conditional mood. We do this so often that we don't always need to be explicit about what the condition is. Here, as is frequently the case, the implied condition is if he were given the choice, or if it were up to him.

"[If it were up to him] MBZ would prefer to maintain indefinite sanctions that failed to halt Iran's nuclear weapons program."

Granted, this sentence is a little strange because it seems to suggest that it's the UAE that put sanctions on Iran. And if this were the case, maintaining the sanctions on Iran would be up to Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi. Although, even then, we'd very likely recognize that single individuals are rarely able to make these kinds of decisions unilaterally. For instance, it would be reasonable to say, "Trump would prefer to maintain sanctions," since we know that he often does not get his way.

A slightly better version of the original sentence would be, "MBZ would prefer that the US maintain the indefinite sanctions that failed to halt Iran's nuclear weapons program."

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  • In this case, does this use of would imply a preference(desire) but with the absence of the ability to choose, meaning he wishes to maintain the sanctions but he actually can't. In other words: "MBZ would rather prefer to maintain the indefinite sanctions that failed to halt Iran's nuclear weapons program, [but he can't really do it]". And, in general, does the use of would to express a desire implies an impression of an incapacity to make this desire come true, a sort of incapacity-to -to-realize-the-desire connotation?
    – Norbert
    Commented Jun 3, 2019 at 15:20
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    @Norbert, in this specific case, we use would because the sanctions weren't imposed by the UAE, so MBZ can't maintain, or not maintain them. But we can use the same sentence structure for a hypothetical situation in which we do have the capacity to act: [if you asked me] I would say... But also, this construction can indicate politeness, and not a hypothetical at all: "I would like the soup of the day" Here, not only do I have the capacity to like the soup, there's no hypothetical. Likewise, in other contexts, with prefer: "I'm not going to the party. I would prefer to stay home tonight"
    – Juhasz
    Commented Jun 3, 2019 at 15:47

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