Christopher Dickey writes: “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. [Continue reading…]