Liar’s Poker

Ever since I read an article last year by poker historian (and poet and novelist) James McManus about the Iranian art of bluffing, I’ve been re-thinking the confrontation between Tehran and Washington.

McManus argues, most recently in the current issue of Card Player Magazine , that the Iranians actually invented poker, or a game quite close to it, which over the centuries made its way to France, across the Atlantic to New Orleans, then up the Mississippi with riverboat gamblers. His basic point is that chess, where all the pieces are visible on the board, is not a very useful metaphor for Middle Eastern politics the way the Persians play the game. It’s what’s hidden—what your opponents don’t see, and the way you make your bets on that—which gives you strength.

President George W. Bush, with his instinct for throwing all the cards up in the air, appears to have been persuaded of this principle, only very slowly.  In 2003 he passed up a “grand bargain” offered by the mullahs, when they still feared America’s wrath. If Washington would drop sanctions and quit pushing for regime change in Tehran, they said they’d open up their nuclear program completely and help Bush stabilize the region. The White House took a pass.

Almost four years later, now that we’ve been bled white in Baghdad, the limits of American patience and endurance are as obvious as a stack of hand-scribbled IOUs in a pot where brightly colored chips used to be, and the grand bargain is no longer on the table. So Washington is trying the Big Bluff. Having demonstrated its weakness, it wants to talk up its strength. As missile batteries and aircraft carriers are deployed near Iran’s frontiers, anonymous administration officials fuel speculation that a military attack is all but inevitable.

It’s not. Neither the United States nor Israel (the wild card) wants an open, all-out war. But in this bluffing game it’s useful to create what McManus calls a “narrative” to keep the mullahs guessing. Washington wants Tehran to believe that at some point, like gunslingers in an old Western, the Americans might sweep away the cards and chips, throw over the table, draw their Colt .45s and start shooting, just as, well … just as they did in Iraq.

In the meantime, there are many more cards to be dealt, and we aren’t even close to the nuclear no-limit climax.

The hand we’re watching right now is focused more on roadside bombs than weapons of mass destruction. Over the last several years, the Iranians, along with their allies in Lebanon and among the Palestinians, have perfected explosive devices that are very effective at penetrating the armor on most modern military vehicles. A focused blast melts and compresses a piece of metal, driving it forward at phenomenal speeds. According to the widely consulted Global Security Web site , the most sophisticated versions launch a projectile at a velocity that would approach “the speed of light, were this possible, in around 1.5 seconds.” In fact, it starts to slow down after 40 millionths of a second, but according to Global Security, a Northern Virginia-based clearing house for defense information, “it is difficult to think of any other terrestrial event as fast.”

The technology is not exactly rare, however. Sophisticated “shaped charges” or “explosively formed projectiles” (EFPs) of this sort have been part of modern arsenals since World War I, and similar devices are commonly used in oil drilling to blast away rock. The Iranian innovation, presumably, was to adapt relatively crude but effective EFPs to guerrilla warfare. Why Iraqis couldn’t have done this, too, has not yet been explained. They are, after all, veterans of many wars and a great deal of oil drilling.

What’s clear is that EFPs have been employed with increasing frequency in Iraq against both American and British forces, at least since 2004. Precisely how many coalition lives have been lost to these devices has not been divulged, but commanders on the ground have been worried, and their superiors in Washington are, too. If even heavy armor becomes vulnerable, and increasing numbers of helicopters are being downed by other insurgent weapons, then it becomes dangerous for allied forces to move anywhere in the country at any time and they will be even more tied down in their concrete-walled compounds.

So Washington is pushing back, striking out at alleged Iranian agents. Five were arrested in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Erbil last month. (Some of the computers captured purportedly showed links to the supply of shaped charges.) According to The Washington Post, American troops are authorized to kill Iranians in Iraq deemed to be a threat, although how their nationality or their threat would be identified is far from obvious. And, of course, officials are speaking out on Capitol Hill. “The EFPs are coming from Iran,” CIA Director Gen. Michael V. Hayden testified flatly earlier this month. “They are being used against our forces. They are capable of defeating some of our heaviest armor, and incident for incident cause significantly more casualties than any other improvised explosive devices do.”

But then, as if in passing, Hayden added the most salient fact: “They are provided to Shi’a militia.” And those forces are in many cases allied to members of the Baghdad government that the United States helped install. The alleged Iranian agents who were picked up in Erbil were in contact with U.S.-backed Kurds. Others arrested in the past were in the offices of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution on Iraq (SCIRI), on which Washington increasingly relies for political support.

The inherent contradictions are such that the administration is reduced to the same kind of speculation about skirmishes and ambushes in Iraq that it once employed to explain nuclear programs and biological weapons. Curiously, some of the press buys into it. Thus a widely publicized story in The New York Times this week reported that unnamed “investigators” said they “believe” that attackers using American uniforms and weapons to infiltrate what was supposed to be a secure compound and murder five Americans in the Shiite stronghold of Karbala on Jan. 20 “may have been trained and financed by Iranian agents, according to American and Iraq officials knowledgeable about the inquiry.”

Wow.

In fact, whatever role Iranians played in Karbala, or not, according to whomever you care to quote anonymously, Iranian influence in Iraq is pervasive. There are agents, sure, and there are also millions of pilgrims visiting religious shrines. There are old families with deep roots on both sides of the border; there is overt Iranian government aid, and there are political, military and terrorist ties (including with our present Iraqi allies) that go back decades.

So, yes, the Bush administration is developing its complicated and frightening bluffs. It may actually have figured out the basic rules of Middle Eastern high-stakes poker—and the Iranians do have vulnerabilities, which we’ll look at in future articles. But when the United States antes up in Iraq, it had better remember it’s playing in Iran’s casino.

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