Alex Massie

Playing Poker with Iran

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Robert Kagan worries that Barack Obama isn't a strong enough poker player to beat Iran. This is probably not much of a surprise. But here's how Kagan puts it:

Many of us worry that, for Obama, engagement is an end in itself, not a means to an end. We worry that every time Iran rejects one proposal, the president will simply resume negotiations on another proposal and that this will continue right up until the day Iran finally tests its first nuclear weapon, at which point the president will simply begin negotiations again to try to persuade Iran to put its nuclear genie back in the bottle...

The worst of it is that the Tehran regime is now desperately trying to buy time so it can regain full control of the country in the face of widespread anger after the fraudulent presidential elections in June and a still-vibrant Iranian opposition. For the clerics, an endless negotiating process is not merely a means of putting off any real concessions on its nuclear program. It is also, and more important, a way of putting off any Western sanctions that could produce new and potentially explosive unrest in their already unstable country. That is the best card in Obama's hand right now. It's time for him to play it -- or admit that poker is not his game.

So Kagan thinks that Obama is either a calling station or a weak player who will always fold. Well, perhaps. But poker is, as Kagan surely appreciates, a situational game. Advocates of a "tougher" Iranian policy always seem to presume that the United States (and its allies have the advantage, both in terms of chip count and the cards they hold. Consequently, only weakness can explain the US's failure to press home its advantage. It should be dictating the game, not reacting to it.

And if the US really were a massive chip leader in this game then that strategy would make a degree of sense. But the US isn't the chip leader, Iran is. We may not like that. Indeed we may deplore it. But we cannot "win" unless we recognise that fact. It is Iran that's able to raise the stakes, Iran that controls the tempo of the game and Iran that, frankly, is in such a strong position that it has no need to bluff at all.

Now maybe Kagan's view that sanctions could "trigger potentially explosive unrest" in Iran is correct. But I'd wager that this is, at best, attempting to hit an inside straight. It might, in desperate times, be worth trying but it's not a bet that's likely to pay off.

But let's suppose we make that bet. And lose. What then? Our chip count is smaller still and we're left with only one more card to play: military action. If and when we make that play we can expect Iran to call the bet, not least because there's little downside to them doing so. Western strategy, essentially, consists of trying to bluff Iran into folding. But the Iranians know that we're bluffing because they know that we don't really want to have to resort to military action, not least because they know that we know that the odds are that any such strikes would be, at best, a temporary victory for the west that will probably only delay Iran's final victory - that is, the acquisition of a nuclear weapon.

The presumption that the cards are there to be played and that any President of the United States can win any game, regardless of the hand he holds if only he is "strong" enough to see the game through is a view that's widely held in Washington. It's also wrong. Good poker players can make the best of a bad hand and play it skilfully, delaying their eventual defeat by winning some hands they've no right to even be in. But no-one can consistently win with bad cards, not even the President of the United States and it is foolish to presume or pretend otherwise.

Play-on by all means because, sure, Iran might make an enormous blunder (let's hope they do) but let's also prepare for the next game: the one played against a nuclear-Iran. At least that one will begin with level stakes.

PS: Remember that on Planet Kagan - or at least on its satellites - George W Bush was also a weak player who failed to doinate Iran. And yet the advice always remains the same: raise and raise again, regardless of circumstances or the cards you hold. Everything else is weak, weak, weak.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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