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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.

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

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).

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.

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."

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.

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