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Iran debate: If Obama doesn't bluff, he's not a good poker player

President Obama's interview with The Atlantic can be seen as a preemptive strike to control the nuclear Iran narrative ahead of Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu's visit next week.

By Staff writer / March 2, 2012

In this 2011 photo, a poker dealer is shown during a game at the Magic City Casino in Miami.

Wilfredo Lee/AP

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As every poker player knows, the key to making a bluff work is to convince your opponent you're not bluffing (hat tip to Doug Saunders).

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And that's why President Obama's statement that "I don't bluff" in regards to his willingness to use force to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon in an interview with The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg released today is so apt. The truth value of the statement is in fact, unknowable.

If at some point the US intelligence establishment determines Iran is on the brink of obtaining a nuclear weapon (the current US consensus is there's no ongoing weapons-related nuclear work), and Obama is president, the strong implication of his comment is that the US would go to war. But if that day comes, there will be a host of other factors to consider, from domestic politics, to surging oil prices, to the potential strains on US alliances.

A cost-benefit calculation will be made. And yes, Obama or any other president will consider containment as an option, depending on if and when the day comes. Obama insisted to Goldberg that containment as a policy is off the table "because you're talking about the most volatile region in the world. It will not be tolerable to a number of states in that region for Iran to have a nuclear weapon and them not to have a nuclear weapon. Iran is known to sponsor terrorist organizations, so the threat of proliferation becomes that much more severe."

Those are real concerns. And it makes sense to insist that there's a red line for the Iranians as Obama and European allies continue to use sanctions and negotiation to bring Iran's nuclear program under stronger outside oversight. But that's just being a good poker player. There is always some ambiguity. Or as Obama told Goldberg: "I think that the Israeli government recognizes that, as president of the United States, I don't bluff. I also don't, as a matter of sound policy, go around advertising exactly what our intentions are."

Poker metaphors have also been in full flow about the jockeying between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who's due in Washington over the weekend for the annual meeting of AIPAC, a pro-Israel lobbying group, and a state visit with the president.

Though Obama may be leader of a superpower and Netanyahu the leader of a small Middle Eastern country, the Israeli premier casts a long shadow on US politics. He's been seeking to pry an iron-clad promise from Obama that the US will in fact attack Iran if it nears a nuclear weapon, and the AIPAC conference is expected to largely focus on the Islamic Republic, which Netanyahu and many Israelis view as the biggest threat to their security.

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