The Random Universe

Iranian Bombs and Black Swans in the Nuclear Negotiations

Many improbable catastrophes might wreck the all-important Iran negotiations. One of them is named Giuliani.

Fabrice Coffrini/Reuters

“Black swans” are the unlikely and unforeseen events that change the world. Mathematical probability cannot predict them and conventional wisdom is blind to them, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb, wrote six years ago when he coined the term. They seem to come out of nowhere, like the airliners of 9/11. But anyone who has a feel for the ever-deceptive volatility of the Middle East can see that right now the black swans are circling like vultures.

Their dark wings can be glimpsed in random headlines: a mysterious American disappears during on an off-the-books mission for the CIA. Members of a cult-like Iranian opposition group are slaughtered in Iraq even as their leaders forge close ties to famous American politicians. The worsening U.S. relationship with its old ally Saudi Arabia is threatened by renewed questions about the complicity of Saudi officials in the 9/11 attacks. Those are just a few of the sinister bits of information floating around the chaotic region these days.

None of these developments are certain to provoke cataclysmic change and, probability-wise, they probably won’t. But the region is so on edge, with Libya crumbling, Egypt in turmoil, and Syria tearing itself apart, that, like the act of a single assassin in Sarajevo in 1914, one unforeseen incident can bring on a cascade of catastrophes.

Let’s set the scene by looking at the Iran talks: The Obama administration has made those negotiations, to stop the mullahs from acquiring atomic weapons, a top priority. But last month’s breakthrough accords between Iran and the United States (plus France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China) are “just interim,” as French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius reminded the World Policy Conference in Monaco on Saturday. A final deal isn’t due for six months, if then.

The Iranians now have most of the know-how and most of the radioactive stuff they need to build a bomb. Will they truly and definitively step back from that threshold? Fabius, whose skepticism stalled the Geneva accords for a time, says he is skeptical still.

If the talks fail, the chances increase dramatically that the United States will get dragged into a new war in the Middle East, most likely alongside Israel. The objective of the surgical attacks that have been talked about would be to stall the Iranian program for just a few years—perhaps a very few years. But in response to such an action, it’s likely the Iranians would pursue a much more secretive effort without any United Nations inspectors to track it, and they’d eventually wind up with the bomb.

The only way to be 100 percent sure they won’t go down that path would be to change the regime. That was the logic behind the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and we know how that went.

So, yes, the Iran talks are extremely important and extremely sensitive, and they’re already complicated by the fact that powerful figures among the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and powerful members of the United States Congress think they can get better deals by pushing their opponents to the brink of war—or even beyond.

But the negotiators on both sides understand these givens, and they are more or less ready for them.

Just last week important technical discussions with the Iranians appeared to break down when the Obama administration announced it was freezing the assets and transactions of several companies accused of evading sanctions. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told CBS he was blindsided by the move. “Angry is not part of diplomacy,” said Zarif. He was “saddened,” he said, but the break in technical talks, he added, was just a “pause.” The negotiating process will go on. The whole thing felt like a well-rehearsed drill meant to appease the hardliners on both sides.

When it comes to the black swans circling around this deal, however, the instinct of the negotiators is to minimize the problems, almost to the point of ignoring them, and to avoid at all costs linking them to the nuclear dossier.

Consider Robert Levinson. In 2007 the retired FBI agent had been working on contract with analysts at the CIA, gathering intelligence on the Colombian and Russian mobs. Then, without a contract, but expecting he’d get paid anyway, he went to the Iranian island of Kish, which is a free trade zone and, basically, a sunny resort for shady characters. Then Levinson disappeared and apart from two messages sent, respectively, from Afghanistan and Pakistan, he hasn’t been heard from since.

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It may well be true that the Americans have been working hard in secret to win his release, but that job is much more complicated now that his haphazard affiliation with the CIA has been revealed in the press. The Iranians insist they don’t have him. But we all know how that game goes: the Iranians and their Hezbollah acolytes took one hostage after another in Lebanon in the 1980s, almost always denying they had them. The two associated publicly with U.S. intelligence during their captivity, Beirut Station Chief William Buckley and U.S. Marine Cops Col. William Higgins, were tortured and killed.

If Levinson is still alive in Iranian hands and the Iranian government wants to release him for diplomatic reasons, that’s harder to do now that his connection with the Central Intelligence Agency is known. Nobody in power in Iran wants to look soft on the CIA.

The more the Iranians stall and the Obama administration tries to avoid responsibility for Levinson, the more the issue of his captivity is likely to grow as a political issue in the United States and the greater the chance it will be linked to nuclear discussions that are, already, incredibly complex and confusing. In a nightmare world for negotiators, the question of Levinson’s fate could even become a deal breaker.

Then there is the Mujahadeen-e-Khalq, which has every interest in scuttling an agreement that will, in fact, help to assure the continued rule of the mullahs.

The MEK’s aim for the last four decades has been to take power in Iran for itself. When the Shah ruled, the MEK murdered Americans who supported him. When he fell and the mullahs took over, the MEK blew up more than 70 members of the Islamic Revolution’s leadership with a single massive bomb at their party headquarters in 1981. During the war that Saddam Hussein launched against Iran, the MEK joined with him and fought pitched battles against the Iranian military using Iraqi-supplied tanks and other heavy weapons.

After that war ended, the MEK still maintained a base in Iraq called Camp Ashraf, and when the Americans invaded to overthrow Saddam in 2003, the Yanks weren’t sure what to do with these strange Iranian allies of the Iraqi tyrant. They’d been officially branded terrorists by the State Department in the 1990s, but some in the Pentagon thought they might be useful for intelligence gathering and covert action. The Americans in Iraq disarmed them, but assured them protection.

As the U.S. pulled out of Iraq in 2011, more than 3,000 MEK members were moved from Ashraf to a former American base called “Camp Liberty” near Baghdad and, once again, assured they’d be safe. Not so. On September 1 this year, armed men invaded the camp, killing 52 people and taking away six women and one man. Their fate remains unclear.

The MEK blame special forces of the Iraqi Interior Ministry for the killings and the abduction, claiming they were working on behalf of their friends in Iran. The Iraqi government has denied complicity. The UN Refugee Agency has called for other countries to resettle the camp’s remaining residents. There have been few takers.

But the MEK, led by Maryam Rajavi, has collected some influential American friends. They played an important role lobbying the Obama administration to take the MEK off its list of terrorist organizations last year, and now they are focused on the Camp Liberty massacre. It’s not an issue that can be wished away, and it is one that enemies of the nuclear negotiations can exploit.

At an MEK rally I went to in Paris earlier this month, former Democratic Party presidential candidate Howard Dean and former Republican Party presidential candidate Rudolph Giuliani both appeared on stage to praise Rajavi and denounce the Obama administration.

They gave passionate speeches. Dean said the United States had “some complicity” in the murders at Camp Liberty and he hoped to “redeem the honor of my country” by exposing the promises made and then broken. The Obama administration seemed to think it was being realistic by keeping the issue of the Camp Liberty murders separate from the nuclear negotiations, said Dean, but “realpolitik is an excuse for telling lies,” he concluded.

Giuliani was even tougher. Camp Liberty was “a concentration camp” and “an extermination camp,” he said. Obama’s naïveté dealing with the Iranian regime was like British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain appeasing the Nazis. The United States should make it clear to the Iranian rulers, “We’re not going to let you slaughter innocent people we promised to protect,” even if that jeopardizes the nuclear negotiations. Indeed, the U.S. should threaten to “crush” the Iranian regime, Giuliani said. The MEK audience gave him a standing ovation.

Rajavi looked on, smiling broadly. She was dressed from her headscarf to her shoes in electric blue, but I had the distinct impression I was watching a black swan.