TO JUDGE by the way his bluff has just been called over Israeli settlements in the West Bank, Barack Obama is not a natural poker player. His dealings with Iran suggest that he may be rather better at chess. For the first time in more than a year, diplomats from Iran met in Geneva this week with the sextet of America, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany to discuss its nuclear programme. The meeting broke up after two days having apparently achieved nothing more than a bad-tempered agreement to meet again in January. From a chess-player’s point of view, that is not necessarily a bad outcome for the Americans.
To understand why, recall the history. Mr Obama entered office promising not to let Iran build the bomb. Since then his administration has worked methodically to weaken and encircle the regime in Tehran. This led last June to yet another UN Security Council sanctions resolutionâ€”the fourthâ€”calling on Iran to stop enriching uranium. Although Iran ignored this resolution, the severity of this round of sanctions seems to have taken the regime by surprise and may have encouraged its return to the table. For America, such moments are a danger as much as an opportunity, because periods of negotiation give waverers such as Russia and China an excuse to relax their squeeze. So far, however, there is no sign of this happening as a result of the inconclusive meeting in Geneva. In some cable not yet acquired by WikiLeaks American diplomats may well be breathing a sigh of relief.
If so, the relief is not shared by the army of domestic critics of Mr Obama’s Iran policy. The shrillest of these are hawks who say that he is naive to suppose that sanctions can end the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme and are impatient for him to unleash the bombers. One such is John Bolton, George Bush’s point man on Iran, who now says that he may run for president and maintains that this president is â€œin over his headâ€ on national security. But there are also doves who are no less scandalised by Mr Obama’s approach, albeit for precisely the opposite reason.
These include Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett, a husband-and-wife team who worked for the Bush administration but have become tireless promulgators of the view that America is heading towards another calamitous war. They complain that for all his lofty words about his â€œextended handâ€ Mr Obama has never believed in rapprochement with Iran, and that his ballyhooed overtures have been bogus. He has, they say, approached negotiations in a way he knows will fail, primarily in order to bring international partners and the American public on board for more sanctions and, eventually, military strikes. In their view his spiking of a plan last year to provide fuel for a research reactor in Tehran, in return for Iran sending most of its low-enriched uranium abroad, was all part of this â€œMachiavellianâ€ agenda.
Would that nice Mr Obama, the precocious possessor of a Nobel peace prize, really be so duplicitous? Here’s hoping. Feints and stratagems are the stuff of chess. In August Mr Obama claimed that many apparently separate elements of his diplomacy were in fact all part of a broader plan to deal with Iran. His early offers to Tehran were not based on any expectation of success but intended to prove to others that America was willing to work with Iran if it behaved reasonably. His administration’s wider emphasis on nuclear disarmament, and his decision to â€œresetâ€ relations with Russia, were desirable in themselves but also part of this strategy to pressurise Iran. All in all, the president concluded, his national-security team could be proud of a piece of â€œwell-executed diplomacyâ€ using â€œall elements of national powerâ€.
So which is the real Mr Obama: the naive incompetent â€œin over his headâ€ or the duplicitous Machiavellian? Certainly not the former: members of Mr Bush’s national-security team more senior than Mr Bolton give the new president credit for strengthening sanctions and beginning to detach Iran from Russia and China. Nor does Mr Obama look like a closet warmonger. Though he has talked of â€œother optionsâ€ if sanctions fail, his own defence secretary, Robert Gates, says repeatedly in public that bombing Iran’s nuclear sites would merely delay and not stop its programme. Instead, Mr Obama appears to have settled in for a long game of encirclement, fending off those (like the Saudis) who want him to â€œcut off the head of the snakeâ€ while making it progressively more costly for Iran to continue on its nuclear path.
It is worth asking whether America has enough time to play a long game. After all, while Mr Obama has been arranging his pieces on the board, the centrifuges at Iran’s enrichment plant at Natanz have continued to spin. It may be that some â€œelements of national powerâ€, whether American or Israeli, have contrived to slow the Iranians down. Iran admitted recently that a computer worm (presumably the mysterious Stuxnet) had disabled some of its centrifuges for a while. Last week one Iranian nuclear scientist was killed and another wounded by unknown assassins, an act that Cathy Ashton, the sextet’s chief negotiator in Geneva, promptly condemned. All the same, Iran has increased its known stockpile of low-enriched uranium this year.
Still, to build a bomb Iran needs to go beyond low enrichment. And since both Natanz and a hitherto secret site near Qom are monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the nuclear watchdog ought quickly to spot any effort to enrich the stockpile to weapons grade. American experts think that if the Iranians kicked out the inspectors and dashed for a bomb it would take them at least another year or two to build a single device. That would be a hair-raising gamble for Iran, because it would spark a crisis and give America plenty of time to decide whether to strike. For the present, a long game appears to suit both countriesâ€”and Mr Obama has so far played his end pretty well.