Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Persian Poker

President Obama was locked in a high stakes game of chess between the US and her European allies and the Iranians over the Iranian nuclear research program.  And any way you looked at the board, Obama was winning.  He had dabbled in dialog just enough to free himself from the accusations of unilateral arrogant war monger that (justifiably) dogged the Bush administration.  Then he went hard at Iran, meaning to apply as much political and economic pressure as he could deliver, short of an actual act of war like a blockade.  He worked with the Russians throughout the START negotiations, and he worked both with and around the Chinese, and all the momentum was moving his way.

Except there was one thing he didn't notice.  The Iranians weren't playing chess.  They were playing poker.  They sat back and waited for the hand they wanted to play, then they pushed in all their chips.  And as Obama sat, contemplating an increasingly favorable board, he suddenly discovered that all the action was on the poker table, and it was his play.

It will be hard for the UN to move forward on a sanctions resolution when the Iranians have just agreed to the American proposal.  It will be hard for the US to find a way to undo a deal they are not actually a central part of - the Turks hold the LEU in a kind of escrow, the Russians and the French deliver the 20% enriched uranium to Iran and take possession of the LEU, and if they don't deliver the 20% uranium the Turks merely return Iran's LEU.  In Europe, Russia and China they heave a sigh of relief as a sanctions resolution now would be tantamount to refusing to take Yes for an answer.

The interesting thing is that whether you believe the Iranians are working on a weapons program or not, the outcome is exactly the same.  Iran has repeatedly denied that they want anything but a civilian nuclear program, and the IAEA has been unable to find any evidence that they are in fact developing a bomb.  The US and Europe, along with the increasingly hysterical Israelis, have repeatedly accused the Iranians of developing nuclear weapons, in spite of the lack of empirical evidence.  In the face of those ongoing, unsupported accusations, even while denying them, the Iranians have had no choice but the play a defensive game as the demands for "punishing sanctions" become more strident.

So now, the UN will adopt a "wait and see" strategy on sanctions.  Iran will continue to enrich, both the 3½% LEU and the approximately 1 kg a month worth of 20% U235 they have been enriching since they were unable to fuel their medical reactor with fuel rods purchased on the International Market.  The US and Europe will make loud, angry complaints about deceit, dishonesty and the ever popular 'too little too late'.  The Israelis will make more explicit threats of war, but will have no real choice but to stand down while the international community is actively working with the Iranians on the fuel cycle.

The Iranians, by outplaying the US in much the way Ayatollah Sistani outplayed Bush on the first Iraqi elections, have bought another six months of peace.  Another Friedman Unit for reason to win out over the politics of fear.  Governments create and build up these boogymen in order to increase their political power among their domestic constituency - if it's not Saddam Hussein, if it's not Hugo Chavez, if it's not Mullah Omar, it can be Mahmoud Amedinejad.  They serve a purpose, but history keeps teaching us that the political game of the "existential threat" can get out of control pretty easily.  It's good to see the game get changed, at least a little.

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