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How Icahn lost the battle—but won the Apple war

Carl Icahn has chosen not to "persist" with his call for Apple to buy back at least $50 billion worth of stock in fiscal 2014, after proxy advisory company Institutional Shareholder Services advised investors to vote against the buyback proposal.

What's incredible is that he has found a way to get more or less what he wanted without needing to see his controversial proxy proposal pass.

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(Read more: Icahn backs off Apple, says 'supportive' of buyback efforts)

CEO Tim Cook announced on Thursday that the company had repurchased $14 billion worth of its shares in two weeks, which Icahn applauded on Twitter.

In his Monday letter, Icahn quoted ISS's insight that because Apple looks on track to repurchase $32 billion in shares in 2014, Icahn's proposal "thus effectively only asks the board to spend another $18 billion on repurchases in the current year."

"In light of these actions, and ISS's recommendation, we see no reason to persist with our non-binding proposal, especially when the company is already so close to fulfilling our requested repurchase target," Icahn wrote.

(Read more: ISS recommends Apple board votes no to Icahn plan)

So while on first blush it could seem that Icahn backed off to avoid an embarrassing vote after a mounting multitude of voices (including CalPERS and the New York City comptroller) came out against the proposal, the fact is that Icahn got two-thirds of what he wanted, without actually needing to force Cook's hand.

"In the market, someone can run ahead of an order, and what Apple did is run ahead of Carl's order," said Dan Nathan of RiskReversal.com. Cook "almost bought in two weeks a third of what Carl was requesting. And without Carl, they wouldn't have done that."

Nathan sees the situation as a win-win, with Icahn and Cook both emerging relatively victorious. But some analysts warn that the company's newfound commitment to buybacks puts its long-term future in question.

"Buying back stock is fine, but it's not going to be the fix that Apple needs," said Colin Gillis, who covers Apple for BGC Partners. "It's like you're out of ideas. It might be better than just building up a mountain of cash—but while Apple is buying back stock, Google is snapping up the top robotics companies out there."

Gillis has a "hold" rating on the company, and a price target of $550.

Of course, Icahn says the long-term bullish case is very much intact, writing: "We are extremely excited about Apple's future. Additionally, we are pleased that Tim and the board have exhibited the 'opportunistic' and 'aggressive' approach to share repurchases that we hoped to instill with our proposal. ... They clearly seem to agree that our company continues to be extremely undervalued, and we all share a common optimism with respect to the company's bright long term future."

For Michael Khouw of Dash Financial, all this positive sentiment and activity suggests a slam-dunk options strategy.

"One of the things that people who are taking a look at this might do is take advantage of the situation and just look to sell some puts," Khouw said.

Selling a put gives an investor the obligation to buy the stock at that put's strike price, no matter how far it falls. If the stock is not below the strike price at the time of expiration, however, then the investor simply keeps the money they took in when they sold that put.

Specifically, on Friday's episode of "Options Action," Khouw suggested selling the 515-strike put for $25.

"The company is buying the stock at prices higher than [$515], and so is Carl. I think that's a pretty comfortable place to get in," Khouw said.

—By CNBC's Alex Rosenberg. Follow him on Twitter: @CNBCAlex.

Follow the show on Twitter: @CNBCOptions.

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