Belmont Club

The Lost Highway

Negotiations between Iran and the Obama administration have reached a fever pitch, with sources suggesting the two sides were only days away from an agreement.  Although the exact character of the deal is still unknown, enough has been guessed to allow some people to make up their minds about it.  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned a few hours ago that:

“This deal, as it appears to be emerging, bears out all of our fears, and even more than that,” Netanyahu told his cabinet in Jerusalem as the United States, five other world powers and Iran worked toward a March 31 deadline in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Noting advances made by Iranian-allied forces in Yemen and other Arab countries, Netanyahu accused the Islamic republic of trying to “conquer the entire Middle East” while moving toward nuclearisation.

A message in the same vein was carried by an Iranian defector. “A media aide to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani covering the P5+1 nuclear talks in Lausanne, Switzerland, is seeking asylum in the West and has blasted the U.S. negotiating team as apologists for Iran,” writes the American Interest, quoting the Telegraph.

Mr Mottaghi also gave succour to western critics of the proposed nuclear deal, which has seen the White House pursue a more conciliatory line with Tehran than some of America’s European allies in the negotiating team, comprising the five permanent members of the UN security council and Germany.

“The US negotiating team are mainly there to speak on Iran’s behalf with other members of the 5+1 countries and convince them of a deal,” he said.

These remarks may be dismissed as disinformation by advocates of the deal, who see an agreement as the narrow path to peace, the last hope to settle a conflict without resort to war. The metaphor is John Kerry’s who described his efforts to block Iran off from the four pathways to a nuclear bomb. Three roads he knows about. It is the fourth way — the one whose meanderings are secret — that Kerry is most concerned about.

On Wednesday in Washington, US Secretary of State John Kerry told the Global Chiefs of Mission Conference that the priority of the Obama administration is to reach a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran that “shuts off the four pathways to a nuclear weapon: the pathway at Fordow, the pathway at Natanz, the pathway at Arak.”

“And finally,” he continued, “the covert pathway, which is the hardest of all but which I can assure you we are deeply focused on.”

That fourth pathway is perhaps the most important— and the least reported— aspect of talks with Iran currently under way here in Switzerland.

Journalists often cite the number of centrifuges Iran will be allowed to retain, the frequency with which they will be inspected by international monitors, the grade to which they will be able to enrich uranium and the technological sophistication, or efficiency, of the machines.

But that public debate is moot should Iran retain the ability to develop nuclear weapons secretly. Of far greater concern to US President Barack Obama is what he does not know— and what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not know, either.

It’s a striking image: John Kerry standing sentry over a phantom highway, the lanky, doleful Secretary of State as guardian of the secret path, whose location neither he nor anyone else is certain of.  But there is also something absurd about it. The only man in Washington in a position fit to commiserate with Kerry is probably Trey Gowdy, who is likewise battling with the unseen. Gowdy says that Hillary Clinton has wiped clean the email server whose contents he subpoenaed. Like Kerry he is grappling with the unknown. Politico reports:

Hillary Clinton wiped “clean” the private server housing emails from her tenure as secretary of state, the chairman of the House committee investigating the 2012 terrorist attacks in Benghazi said Friday.

“While it is not clear precisely when Secretary Clinton decided to permanently delete all emails from her server, it appears she made the decision after October 28, 2014, when the Department of State for the first time asked the Secretary to return her public record to the Department,” Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), chairman of the Select Committee on Benghazi, said in a statement.

The point of the comparison is that in both cases one is dealing with parties possessed of a considerable, but unmeasured capability for mischief with a proven determination to avoid coming clean. This doesn’t mean it is impossible to reach a deal with them. But it does mean is that any agreement with such parties contains a large element of risk.

The incentive to cheat is high.  The number of trap doors and secret panels in their mansion of mysteries is high. You can think of it intuitively as lending money or granting bail to a high risk individual.  Bail bondsmen know can be done, but only if the sureties are sufficient and the risk premium is adequate.  And even then you will need a bounty hunter on your speed-dial list.

If you worked for a credit card company, how much would you lend Iran? How much Hillary?  This is a nuclear deal in Iran’s case, and the world is lending them a lot.

In a relatively short period, president Obama will place a very large bet.  When he makes the deal a coin will be tossed. On the one hand he may have saved the world from a major war. On the other hand, he may have guaranteed it. No can know for sure while the coin is spinning in the air.  We will only know when it lands. Such is the nature of risk in this world.

But surely everyone will agree that it is only prudent to examine the coin before it is tossed or to inspect the dice for loading.  At the very least Congress and the Senate must look it over and kick the tires.  There should be none of this nonsense about “trust me”. The more serious the outcome, the more finely you must weigh the odds. President Obama is hungry for a legacy. Let’s hope he remembers that an administration legacy is not the same as an epitaph.


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