High Stakes in a Game of Persian Poker: An Analysis of the New US-Iranian Conflict

3 mins read

By Henrik Bark

International conflicts area serious topic; human suffering and countless lives are at stake. Therefore it seems out of turn to draw analogies to a game. However, I believe that conflicts of this kind have some likeness to a game of poker. Firstly, the opposing sides possess different kinds of capabilities and obstacles, that work like playing cards. Secondly, the opposing sides might be able to deduce what the opponent’s cards are through different means, however in all conflicts there is  a considerable level of uncertainty, risk of miscalculations, and limited ability to empathize with the opponent’s rationale. Thirdly, the opposing sides will prefer to make the other side fold before these cards are played out in the final round. 

The US-Iranian crisis started when Trump acted on his promise to terminate the Iranian Nuclear deal. This deal, while praised in Europe as a great compromise, was seen by many Republicans as a let down. Also while it hindered Iran from developing nuclear weapons, it did not at all handle what was perceived as Iranian provocations in the Middle-East.
Iran has supported several armed groups that are labelled as terrorists that have attacked and killed US soldiers. Iran also is actively supporting groups such as Hezbollah against American allies such as Israel. Iran is also supporting Bashar al-Assad in Syria and is involved in the Yemenite civil war. Not to mention that Iran is a tough dictatorship that has committed countless crimes against its own people.

When Trump decided to put pressure on the Iranian regime, he likely did it believing that he had better cards at hand. The Iranian economy is backwards and heavily dependent on raw material exports. During the last 10 years the Iranian regime has been shaken by deadly protests for increased freedoms and rights and against economic mismanagement and expensive military involvement in the middle east. It is obvious that the Iranian people are not in favour of a showdown with western powers. Rouhani defeated the incumbent President Ahmadinejad in 2013 on promises of moderate pro-reform and reconciliation with the West. This was also something that made the Iran-nuclear deal possible.

While watching Iran’s situation, the other signatories of the Iran deal have tried to circumvent the reintroduced US sanctions. US influence has been hurt and Iran has shown off to be able to hurt US interests through different kinds of hybrid warfare and deniable operations.

A big part of proxy warfare and hybrid warfare is that the opponents will not fight each other openly in the fear of escalation to open warfare. At the same time they will boast about their own readiness to cause some heavy damage to their opponent and their readiness to handle an escalation. If your opponent does not believe that you are ready to handle an escalation, they will be more likely to escalate the conflict themselves, while expecting you to back down. What they basically are doing is calling your bluff. 

When the Trump administration decided to kill General Qasem Suleimani, they called an Iranian bluff. Qasem Suleimani was the very capable commander of the Iranian “Quds force” which is the special forces of the Iranian Revolutionary guard, and has been the mastermind behind the foreign intervention that saved Bashar al-Assad, Iranian involvement in the war against ISIL and also the ongoing Iranian involvement in Iraq.  While playing with really high stakes – a possible large scale war – it is apparent that Trump did not believe that Iran was ready to risk an escalation by retaliating in a manner that matched the killing of an important commander. They also broke the unwritten rules of the kind of proxy warfare, hybrid warfare and low intensity warfare that has been dominating the power struggle between the major powers since the second world war: One does not openly attack the opponent’s personnel, and certainly not opponent’s generals. Thereby the Trump administration also raised the stakes and escalated the conflict, believing that Iran, while not backing down, would only symbolically retaliate. 

Then of course something unexpected happened: a gigantic tragedy, the shooting down of flight PS 752 with 176 fatalities, at least 10 Swedish citizens and several more Swedish residents. This tragedy happening indeed affected the showdown between Iran and the US, like a wild card it strengthened US resolve while, causing an enormous embarrassment for the Iranian regime and fuelled renewed Iranian anti-government protests. 

Without this tragedy it is likely that the Iranian regime would have tried to match the US when it raised the stakes, which could have resulted in an ever more dangerous level of tension. What the future holds is hard to say. However, it seems likely that the Iranian regime is now playing with a relatively open hand. The Iranian military leadership has demonstrated a high level of incompetence, and seems to lack public support for any kind of military adventures. Meanwhile President Trump certainly needs some successes in his foreign policy to show off for the American voters in the upcoming election.
Maybe the Iranian regime will try to find ways to not only fold but to withdraw from the game entirely. 

Cover photo: coolloud

Henrik Bark is currently doing his master in statistics at Uppsala university and has earlier studied economics here in Uppsala and Political Science at the Swedish Defence University. He is 24 years old and he believes that the 2020s will require common people to be a lot more informed about world events.

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