Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Playing a weak hand against Iran

Robert Kagan gets the Iranian issue exactly right and his question is also right: What kind of poker player is President Obama?  Negotiating with Iran is by definition an unavoidable part of pursuing the diplomatic option with Iran. President Obama should not be faulted for trying to negotiate a deal with Iran. But negotiations must ...

578014_091029_poker2.jpg
578014_091029_poker2.jpg
A poker croupier is about to give cards during the Poker Tour on August 31, 2009 in Cannes, French Riviera. The tournament, guanranteeing a Prize pool of 3 million euros, is being held until September 5, 2009. AFP PHOTO VALERY HACHE (Photo credit should read VALERY HACHE/AFP/Getty Images)

Robert Kagan gets the Iranian issue exactly right and his question is also right: What kind of poker player is President Obama? 

Negotiating with Iran is by definition an unavoidable part of pursuing the diplomatic option with Iran. President Obama should not be faulted for trying to negotiate a deal with Iran. But negotiations must remain a means to an end, and here the record with Iran stemming back many years is an unhappy one: the Iranian regime is a master at turning the means into the ends, where the goal increasingly becomes "preserve and prolong the negotiations" rather than "reach a deal." Unfortunately, that seems to be happening again now. All of the players, including Russia, are returning to form.

Robert Kagan gets the Iranian issue exactly right and his question is also right: What kind of poker player is President Obama? 

Negotiating with Iran is by definition an unavoidable part of pursuing the diplomatic option with Iran. President Obama should not be faulted for trying to negotiate a deal with Iran. But negotiations must remain a means to an end, and here the record with Iran stemming back many years is an unhappy one: the Iranian regime is a master at turning the means into the ends, where the goal increasingly becomes “preserve and prolong the negotiations” rather than “reach a deal.” Unfortunately, that seems to be happening again now. All of the players, including Russia, are returning to form.

This is precisely why I argued that it was important to get the negotiating leverage that comes with ramped-up sanctions before negotiations started rather than after they had been shown to fail. If we had that leverage on Iran now, then every delay and every dither would gradually strengthen our hand and weaken Iran’s. Our options would improve because theirs would get bleaker. Without that leverage, the opposite happens and is indeed happening right now: every delay and dither puts Iran in a slightly stronger position vis-à-vis the world community.

Perhaps the poker analogy could be improved slightly with one tweak: without the sanctions, we are playing poker with our seat on fire but with the sanctions we would be playing poker with Iran’s seat on fire. Even a Nobel Prize winning poker player will have a tough time getting success in the first instance, but even a so-so poker player might have success in the second.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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