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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.

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Aluf Benn's piece today in Israel's left-leaning Haaretz is headlined "Netanyahu and Obama play high-stakes poker over Iran." Mr. Benn writes: "On Monday, Netanyahu will meet President Barack Obama in the White House for a game of diplomatic poker, where the greatest gamble of all will be right on the table: an attack on Iran's nuclear installations. Each of the two players will try to push the other to act."

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Benn, calling the trip the "most important one in [Netanyahu's] long career" writes that the Israeli leader has amassed a hefty stack of chips at the table. "For three years, Netanyahu has been preparing for this very moment. During this period, he has chalked up for himself a diplomatic coup that initially was seen as unimaginable: He has managed to turn the superpower's political agenda upside-down - from "Palestine first" to "Iran as top priority.""

Writing in the hawkish Jerusalem Post, Jay Bushinsky says Obama will lean hard on Netanyahu to avoid an attack on Iran, at least for now. "Obama may oppose any kind of military operation before the presidential election in November because it may cost him votes if the results are unsatisfactory or unimpressive," he writes. "[Obama's] thinking may be influenced in part by the principle that one always knows when and how a bilateral conflict began, but one never knows when and how it will come to an end."

Netanyahu, for his part, sought to turn up the heat of war talk ahead of his arrival in Washington. Speaking in Ottawa, he called international talks with Iran a "trap" that will do nothing to deter it from the pursuit of nuclear weapons. Iran "could pursue or exploit the talks as they've done in the past to deceive and delay so that they can continue to advance their nuclear program and get to the nuclear finish line," he said after meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He also appeared to insist that Israel reserves the right to conduct a strike on Iran, with or without US approval. "Like any sovereign country, we reserve the right to defend ourselves against a country that calls and works for our destruction," he said.

Meanwhile, US-led sanctions on Iran continue to be taking a toll. The Noor Islamic Bank of Dubai, a financial institution close to the emirate's ruling family that was one of Iran's major international financial lifelines, recently cut Iran off at the behest of US officials. Undersecretary of the Treasury David Cohen said at the end of last month that Iran's currency, the riyal, is "plummeting" and has lost half its value since September. These are real pressures on the regime in Tehran, and Obama is probably going to give them a good long while to before he gives up on them. 

So expect more hawkish calls and threats of looming war at this weekend's AIPAC conference. Expect Obama to continue to insist that "all options are on the table." But remember that there's plenty of bluster in international diplomacy, and the shooting's probably a long way from getting started.

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.


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