When the game of Chatrang arrived in Sassanid Persia from India, it quickly developed into what became present-day chess. Not only did the Persian exclamations “Shah!” and “Shah Mat” (“check!” and “check mate!”) enter the chess lexicon but, most important, the game became part and parcel of the education of nobility at the Persian court. Chess is deeply ingrained in Iranian culture — certainly also in how Iran plays diplomacy with the world.
Indeed, it should come as no surprise that Roxanna Saberi has become the latest pawn in Iran’s chess game. As Noah Pollak noted, she is “Iran’s latest hostage” in a game with many precedents. Saberi represents a perfect opportunity for the regime to push President Obama in a corner. She is an American citizen — former Miss North Dakota, no less! She is a journalist and a woman.
Imprisoning her forces the U.S. to take a stand for all it believes in — human rights, freedom of the press, protecting U.S. citizens abroad, due process, fair trial, etc. — and by so doing, risk spoiling current efforts of rapprochement and engagement with Iran. If the U.S. were to do that — Iran just counseled against it — it might give Iran a pretext to rebuke U.S. diplomatic efforts and up the ante. If it decides to forgo principle in the name of diplomatic expediency, the U.S. will emerge weakened and exposed to the charge of hypocrisy for having sacrificed Saberi to the diplomatic interests of the state.
One has to give it to the Iranians — they are masters at the game. Their opponent, so far, seems a bit of a novice, to say the least.