The Iranian Poker Game

Last week, the week of the opening of the UN General Assembly, all eyes (or at least politically interested eyes) fell on New York and more specifically President Ahmadinejad of Iran, who on his second trip to New York, and at a crucial time during the ongoing nuclear discussions, not only addressed the world body but unusually for an Iranian politician, made himself readily available to the U.S. media. I wrote about Ahmadinejad's trip here, but apart from the seemingly preposterous situation whereby Mr. Ahmadinejad and his Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki were on 48th Street in Manhattan while simultaneously George Bush and Condoleezza Rice were on 49th (and yet they never met), what was left unsaid during the week (apart from Brian Williams of NBC who asked President Ahmadinejad what he would say to Mr. Bush if he were in the room), was whether it would have been right for Mr. Bush to ask for a meeting with Mr. Ahmadinejad, who after all, could have strolled over to the Waldorf in less than three minutes.

The Iranians have been described as expert negotiators, able diplomats, and cunning poker players. But if they're good poker players, then one has to assume they sometimes bluff. The Bush administration, which counts few, if any poker players in its ranks, hasn't seemed to have figured that out and certainly hasn't figured out that it sometimes pays to counter a bluff with another, bigger bluff. Had Mr. Bush offered to meet with Mr. Ahmadinejad (who has written a letter to him and whose government has repeatedly said it would meet with anyone, anywhere, as long as talks would be unconditional), it would have put Mr. Ahmadinejad in the uncomfortable position whereby if he refused, he would appear insincere in his desire to reach a negotiated settlement on the nuclear issue. And, almost more uncomfortably, if he accepted, it would have led to a higher estimation of Mr. Bush in the eyes of the world. (Of course an invitation would have set off a flurry of NY-Tehran phone calls, and coming to a decision would have been agonizing for the Iranians, but that in itself would have been worth the bluff.) And, if they had met, perhaps over a cup of tea, might they have been able to hammer out a deal of sorts?:

George Bush: You suspend enrichment; we'll start talking about what you want and what we want.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: No, let's start talking about what we want, then maybe we'll suspend enrichment.

GB: How's this: we start talking about what we both want tomorrow at 11am, but first you suspend enrichment at 10:59am. Would that work for you? Can you sell that to your people?

MA: Sounds good to me, if it's the other way around. We'll start at 11, but suspend at 11:01. Then it shouldn't be a problem. But suspension is voluntary and temporary, okay?

GB: I'll see your two minutes and raise you. You say you suspended at 11:01, we'll say you agreed to suspend before 11. How's that? I don't care how you sell it to your people.

MA: We want a security guarantee, too.

GB: Whoa...these are supposed to be unconditional talks, right? Why would I give you a security guarantee now?

MA: Okay, okay. But at 11:00am you guarantee that you won't attack or sanction Iran.

GB: No sweat. But the guarantee is only good for the duration of the talks.

MA: Fine. So is the enrichment suspension.

GB: Great. Condi; you got that?

MA: Oh, and the seventy-five million dollars you want to spend to promote regime-change?

GB: Yeah...

MA: You can't spend a penny.

GB: For the duration of the talks; okay. Condi; someone please tell Reza Pahlavi to stop sending me e-mails with his account number, okay? You should never have given him my Blackberry....

MA: What is that account number, by the way?

GB: You're a funny guy, Almond-Rocca; can I call you that?

MA: (To translator) What did he say?

A fantasy, yes, but the reality needn't be far off. Everyone in Iran from the Supreme Leader on down has said they are willing to negotiate with the U.S. If President Bush had invited President Ahmadinejad over, or even if he'd offered to go over to Ahmadinejad's suite (or just banged on the door), what could have been the downside? That Ahmadinejad would refuse to meet? Or that he would accept, and the two men could find a way to move the U.S.-Iran relationship away from potential military conflict?
To those who say that the U.S. can never talk to a Holocaust-denier, or someone with malevolent intentions towards Israel, or even someone who supports terrorism; it's too late. We've already said we'll talk to Iran, and the conditions we've set for the talks have nothing to do with those three issues. The media spends far too much time with Ahmadinejad talking about the Holocaust and about his stance on Israel and not enough time looking for answers as to how the nuclear question might be solved. Although not completely irrelevant, Mr. Ahmadinejad's personal views on the Holocaust, illogical and distasteful as they may be, aren't particularly germane to anything, and his desire to see Israel disappear (if with help from Iran) is relevant only if he really intends remove it from the map, but more importantly if the Revolutionary Guards, the Army, and most important, the Supreme Leader, to whom those organs actually report, share not only his desire but a willingness to put his words into action. So far, they apparently do not.

When former President Khatami was traveling in the U.S. at the beginning of September, he made it clear that Iran would be willing to discuss suspension of their enrichment program within negotiations. Iranian officials in Tehran signaled the same thing, and they continue to do so. What that means, effectively, is that Iran is looking for a way to move to negotiations that satisfy all the parties involved. If we had an administration that knew Iranians, even if it thought the Iranians were bluffing, it would call the bluff. Starting talks at 11am and following with a suspension of uranium enrichment at 11:01am, or 11:30am, seems perfectly feasible, but only if the Bush administration is willing to stop being petulant in its desire to humiliate Iran.

George Bush seems to think that the U.S. will appear weak if he talks to the Iranians. But the one good hand he had to play, the military one, is face-up for all to see in Iraq, and to the Iranians (and the rest of the world) it's not even an ace-high. Weak? So if Mr. Bush plays his hand through and it comes to armed conflict, what does he say to the family of the first American serviceman killed in a conflict with Iran (and maybe it's a pilot who crashes or is shot down while trying to bomb Natanz)? That their child died because the President didn't want to appear weak?