Category Archives: Global Economics

Desperate in Damascus

CharityMy Comments: The world is ‘a changin’. This was written just a little over two weeks ago. And now we hear Russia has sent cruise missiles from its’ navy ships into Syria. NATO is paying very close attention, given that Turkey is a member nation; this could get really ugly before its over.

By Fred Kaplan Sept. 22 2015

The presence of Russian troops, tanks, and planes in Syria isn’t something to shrug off, but it’s not worth a lot of worry, either—or, to the extent it might be, it’s not for the reasons that the neo-Cold Warriors find so alarming.

It’s true that, much as Russian officials claim they merely want to help the world fight ISIS, their main motive is to shore up the regime of their ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. However, those two goals are not mutually exclusive: Moscow does have an interest in crushing radical Islamist groups that might spread to the heavily Muslim regions of southern Russia. Either way, the uptick in military supplies to Syria (on top of the billions of dollars in arms sales and aid over many years) marks not an expansion of Russia’s influence in the Middle East but rather a last-ditch effort to preserve its one last bastion—an extremely shaky bastion, at that.

In the past decade, Russia has lost erstwhile footholds in Libya and Iraq, failed in its attempt to regain Egypt as an ally after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, and would have lost Syria as well except for its supply of arms and advisers to Assad—whom it still may lose, despite its desperate measures.

The portrayal of Vladimir Putin as a grand chess master, shrewdly rebuilding the Russian empire through strength and wiles, is laughable. Syria is just one of two countries outside the former Soviet Union where Russia has a military base (the other being Vietnam, and its naval facility there, at Cam Ranh Bay, has shrunk considerably). His annexation of Crimea has proved a financial drain. His incursion into eastern Ukraine (where many ethnic Russians would welcome re-absorption into the Motherland) has stalled after a thin slice was taken at the cost of 3,000 soldiers. His plan for a Eurasian Economic Union, to counter the influence of the west’s European Union, has failed to materialize. His energy deal with China, designed to counter the west’s sanctions against Russian companies, has c One school of thought contends that Putin is seeking a way back in to the international community—the sanctions seem to be hurting his cronies, as well as certain sectors of the Russian economy—and that his moves in Syria, along with rumors of a conciliatory speech at the upcoming session of the U.N. General Assembly, are meant to be part of this campaign. At best, though, this is only part of the story: Even if Putin joins the fight against ISIS (which is in his interest to do), and even if he’s willing to let Assad go, he will want a say in choosing a successor—another reason for putting more boots, treads, and wheels on the ground.

Or maybe his motives are entirely cynical. One way to find out is to talk with him—to scope out the possibilities of cooperation (or at least of exploiting our converging interests) and to spell out the consequences if his actions turn hostile. This is clearly what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahudid when he spoke with Putin on Monday, arriving in Moscow with his top general and intelligence chief in tow. (The general and his Russian counterpart set up a coordination group to prevent unintended confrontations between the two countries during military actions over Syria.)

It’s what Secretary of State John Kerry did when he talked with his counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, over the weekend. It’s what President Obama may do if and when he talks with Putin at the U.N. next week. Max Boot laments all this as “genuflecting”; a better description would be “cautious engagement,” and there’s nothing wrong with that, especially since it’s Putin who’s holding the weak hand here.

The notion, expressed by some of the candidates at the last Republican presidential debate, that Putin might use his strengthened position in Syria as leverage to pry the Saudis, Jordanians, and Egyptians into his fold—how to begin toting the absurdities? His position in Syria is hardly strong; if these Sunni Arab leaders were remotely inclined to go in with Moscow (which they aren’t), they would hardly find Putin’s ramped-up alliance with Assad as cause to reconsider.

There are, however, three genuinely worrisome things about Putin’s latest move, even assuming less-than-hostile intentions. First, after the first reports last week of Russian troops and weapons moving into Syria, a senior administration official told me that he would be concerned if those weapons included anti-aircraft missiles, since neither ISIS nor the other rebel groups have airplanes. Two days later, it turned out that the weapons did include such weapons. So who are the Russians’ intended targets? If they mean to assure Assad that they will shoot down American, Turkish, Israeli, or Gulf State airplanes that try to bomb the Syrian government’s assets (or Hezbollah targets), it’s worthwhile to spell out, to Putin or his generals, the consequences.

Second, if the Russians do join the fight against ISIS, they are likely to fight against other anti-Assad rebels too—including rebels (among them Syrian Kurds) that the United States is supporting. If Russia really does want some form of partnership in this, it must agree not to cross certain lines in the sand; even if Putin really doesn’t want to be partners, it’s worth letting him know what lines not to cross, if he doesn’t want to provoke a larger conflict, with us or other countries.

Third, it’s possible that Russia’s entry could set back the war on ISIS by galvanizing new waves of jihadists—especially from the area around Chechnya and the heavily Muslim states on Russia’s southern border whose hatred of Moscow dates back to their decades of subjugation under the Soviet Union. In other words, under the best possible scenario, Putin’s urge to help could, on balance, hurt. Aimen Dean, a Saudi-born security analyst with deep background in the region’s conflicts, goes so far as to predict that, for these reasons, “Russia’s mission creep in Syria will only produce catastrophic results across the region and beyond.”

Plutonium Is Unsung Concession in Iran Nuclear Deal

My Comments: I think I’m beating a dead horse here but I’m going ahead anyway. This new article points out something I’ve missed in every single argument I’ve read that argued either in favor of or against the agreement on Iran.

As a financial professional, I often hear arguments in favor of or against the use of professional help to achieve the desired outcome. Almost invariably, an amateur approach results in missed opportunities or worse.

If what appears below is accurate, and I’m going to assume it is, then the comments by Dick Cheney, Donald Trump et al follow the same lack of understanding as do clients who believe they don’t need professionals to help them manage their money. Sometimes they can, at least for a while, or until something comes along that they had no clue was relevant.


At first glance, the metals that give atom bombs their destructive fury might seem interchangeable: Uranium and plutonium are both more valuable than gold. Both captivate would-be atomic powers. And both fueled bombs that leveled Japanese cities — uranium at Hiroshima and plutonium at Nagasaki.
But to see them as equal is to ignore a crucial difference: Of the 15,000 or so nuclear warheads on the planet, atomic experts say, more than 95 percent rely on plutonium to ignite their firestorms.

As a fuel for weapons, plutonium packs a far greater punch than uranium, and in bulk can be easier and cheaper to produce. Which is why some nuclear experts voice incomprehension at what they see as a lopsided focus on uranium in evaluations of the deal reached with Iran — under which Tehran would forsake the production of plutonium.

“It was an incredibly big breakthrough,” said Siegfried S. Hecker, a Stanford professor and former director of the Los Alamos weapons lab in New Mexico, the birthplace of the bomb. “But nobody seems to care.”

Nearly two years of negotiations went into the landmark deal, which would limit Iran’s production of uranium and plutonium in exchange for the end of international oil and financial sanctions. It was finalized in July and is set for a congressional vote this month. Last week, President Obama secured commitments for enough votes to put the agreement in place over fierce Republican opposition.

But in the dauntingly complex analyses that preceded that political alignment, questions and criticism revolved almost exclusively around uranium — how much of it Iran would be allowed to enrich and stockpile, and how compliance would be verified.

Atomic experts call the uranium focus potentially misleading, because it is the lesser path to the bomb.

In secret, three decades ago, Iran began exploring the plutonium path and was perhaps only months from inaugurating a plant for its production when, last year, as negotiations gained momentum, it abruptly agreed to a fundamental redesign that would end the facility’s potential for making substantial amounts of bomb fuel.

The nuclear reactor complex near Arak, Iran, is ringed with antiaircraft guns and missiles. Last year, the complex was nearly ready to begin converting uranium fuel into weapons-grade plutonium. But as part of the nuclear deal between Iran and the West, Tehran agreed to redesign the reactor and not to build other plutonium reactors for at least 15 years.

Tehran’s vow was a major turnaround, say nuclear experts, who express frustration that political jousting and technical naïveté have largely obscured what they call one of the accord’s main triumphs.

“It’s a real success,” said Frank N. von Hippel, a physicist who advised the Clinton administration and now teaches at Princeton. “I was surprised that they were willing to give it up.”

Richard L. Garwin, a principal designer of the world’s first hydrogen bomb and a longtime adviser to Washington on nuclear weapons and arms control, called the redesign “a great achievement.” He and other scientists signed a letter to President Obama last month praising the Iran deal as innovative and stringent.

Bomb veterans say the central importance of Tehran’s plutonium concession becomes strikingly clear in the light of history.

After the Manhattan Project began, in 1942, plutonium became a superstar and uranium a sideshow. Purifying uranium into bomb fuel turned out to be extraordinarily difficult, whereas plutonium was an atomic byproduct, easing its manufacture. Moreover, it took far less plutonium to produce a blast of equal size. “It’s got twice the punch,” said Ray E. Kidder, a retired arms designer at the Livermore weapons lab in California. “All things being equal, it makes for a more powerful weapon.”

The plutonium was made in reactors. Tiny particles known as neutrons would zip through fuel rods, splitting atoms of uranium in two. That released energy and more neutrons in multiplying chain reactions.

In a kind of modern alchemy, some of the uranium atoms would also absorb neutrons and turn into plutonium. The Manhattan engineers refined that process so plutonium became the main product. The work was far more dangerous than purifying uranium, in part because the fresh plutonium had to be scavenged from highly radioactive fuel rods. But the results were spectacular.

On July 16, 1945, the world’s first atom bomb lit up the New Mexico desert. Its plutonium core was 3.6 inches wide. In his diary, President Harry S. Truman called the blast “startling — to put it mildly.” The shock wave, he said, knocked down men nearly six miles away.

The nature of a detonating atom bomb is that it rapidly tears itself apart, stopping the chain reactions long before all the atoms are split in energetic bursts.

In New Mexico that day, the bomb’s core started with 6.2 kilograms of plutonium. About a fifth of those atoms split in two, producing waves of smaller atoms as well as a gargantuan flash of pure energy. The plutonium behind that flash is estimated at one gram – the weight of a dollar bill.

The secret, and that of all nuclear arms, lies in the colossal divide between matter and energy that Einstein laid out decades earlier in his famous E = mc², where energy equals mass times the speed of light squared, a staggeringly large number.

On Aug. 9, 1945, when the United States dropped a plutonium bomb on Nagasaki, a gram of matter again flashed into energy. Some 75,000 people died. More plutonium bombs were in preparation as Japan surrendered.

The Soviet Union, Britain and France used plutonium to power their first atom bombs. The metal liberates more energy than uranium in part because its atoms emit more neutrons when split, speeding chain reactions and increasing the weapon’s explosive yield. The high multiplication factor also means that plutonium warheads can be smaller and lighter, so missiles can fire them over longer distances.

Experts say India, North Korea, Israel and Pakistan have used reactors to make plutonium for nuclear arms.

Advanced states use plutonium mainly for hydrogen weapons, which dominate their arsenals. A small mass of the silvery metal, typically no bigger than a baseball, acts as a superhot match to light the thermonuclear fuel. The resulting warhead is up to a thousand times more powerful than an atomic bomb.

Tehran’s bid for plutonium was revealed publicly in late 2002, at the start of Iran’s standoff with the West. Attention focused on a sprawling, half-built reactor complex, named Arak after a nearby city. The isolated site was ringed by miles of barbed wire.

Tehran claimed that Arak would make radioisotopes for such humanitarian purposes as treating cancer. But as work on the complex progressed, nearby valleys and mountaintops came to bristle with scores of antiaircraft weapons.

“It’s pretty well defended for something that’s supposedly peaceful,” said Forbes McKenzie, managing director of McKenzie Intelligence, a private firm in London that examined satellite images of the remote site.

Experts say Arak’s antiaircraft guns are primed for Israeli jets, which have twice hit emerging plutonium threats. In 1981, Israel bombed an unfinished reactor in Iraq and, in 2007, smashed another in Syria.

The most palpable roots of Iran’s plutonium reversal go back to 2012, when arms control experts began discussing Arak’s redesign. Early last year, as part of the interim diplomatic accord, Iran agreed to stop making improvements at its three nuclear fuel plants, including the unfinished reactor.

“Progress,” Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters, “is frozen in place.” The reactor was said to have been months from commissioning.

By mid-2014, Iranian officials surprised Western experts by agreeing to scrap two decades of planning and redo the Arak reactor. They pledged a fundamental redesign so the finished plant would focus exclusively on medical isotopes rather than also producing what Western experts estimated as up to two bombs worth of weapons-grade plutonium each year. With an eye to diplomatic ambiguity, Tehran never admitted that it had sought plutonium for weapons.

A year ago, at the New York City residence of Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, Iranian reactor designers laid out for American experts a summary of the detailed plan. “It was a remarkably good redesign,” recalled R. Scott Kemp, a nuclear expert at M.I.T. who formerly worked at the State Department.

In selling the Iran deal, the White House has stressed the plutonium step. Tehran does the opposite, telling home audiences that it will still purify uranium. In April this year, when diplomats announced the preliminary accord, Mr. Obama put Arak atop his list of selling points. “First, Iran will not be able to pursue a bomb using plutonium,” he told reporters in the Rose Garden. “The core of its reactor at Arak will be dismantled and replaced.”

¬Siegfried S. Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos weapons lab, called Iran’s concession “an incredibly big breakthrough.” The final accord, announced in Vienna on July 14, detailed the curbs on uranium before those on plutonium – perhaps as a gesture to Tehran. Mr. Obama, in his Aug. 5 speech at American University, flipped the order. Iran, he said in his first technical point, “cannot acquire the plutonium needed for a bomb.”

Critics fault the deal as leaving Iran free to speed ahead after the accord’s main provisions expire. Its ban on plutonium reactors is to remain in place for at least 15 years. The Obama administration says the deal is better than the alternatives, including war.

Why did Iran’s reversal on Arak fall off the public radar so quickly? Nuclear experts list a number of possible factors.

They note that the military threat from an unfinished plutonium complex can be viewed as abstract compared with Iran’s success at purifying uranium in its two underground plants. Worst-case estimates say Iran could enrich enough uranium for a bomb in as little as two or three months.

The plutonium deal, experts add, displayed no loose ends. It basically ended Iran’s longtime bid, leaving few openings for opponents and doubters of the accord.

“There’s nothing left to discuss,” Dr. von Hippel said.

In contrast, the overall deal let Iran keep thousands of centrifuges spinning to purify uranium. Diplomats see that as a defensible concession to Tehran. But in Washington, it has fueled opposition to the agreement, with some critics questioning whether inspectors will be able to adequately verify the uranium curbs.

Why did Iran give up plutonium? Dr. Hecker, the former director of Los Alamos, said Tehran had probably decided to abandon its push for an arsenal. But he argued that the nation’s hard bargaining to save much of its uranium complex suggested that it still wanted to hedge its bets.

“I think, at this point, Iran really doesn’t want to develop nuclear weapons,” he said in an interview. “But they’ve kept the option.”

Dr. von Hippel of Princeton agreed. He said it appeared that Iran had been aggressively pursuing two pathways to bomb fuel and decided that one was enough.

“They don’t want an arsenal,” he said. “They want the U.S. to know that they could still go for a bomb.”

If the deal goes through, experts say, the redesign and rebuilding of the Arak reactor could take up to a decade.

And if the accord falls apart? Experts say the Arak reactor could soon become a plutonium factory. Iranian troops, they add, appear to have long exercised the nearby guns and missiles, preparing for war.

5 Events of Significance

flag USMy Comments: Students are back in school, the morning air is fresher, a stray dog showed up yesterday, I have no doctors appointments this week, and we’re having a garage sale on the 19th. Not significant enough you say?

Well, here are five more that confirm my faith in my fellow countrymen. Yes, there are those who’d rather recapture the glories of the past and I’ve pretty much given up on them. I’d rather spend time and energy and control some of the present and pretend to influence the future. The following five events are nothing to sneeze at and are reasons to be more optimistic about the future.

September 7, 2015

What will you remember about the summer of 2015?

Will it be the GOP tying its fate to the most divisive, thin-skinned and clownish Republican frontrunner/birther in American history? Will it be an amorphous Benghazi investigation that has been impaneled longer than the investigation into Iran-Contra — an actual Constitutional crisis that saw a sitting vice president/candidate for president refuse to release relevant diary entries that may have implicated him in the crime — yielding nothing but questions about administrative vagaries of classified email? Will we remember how the right and a complicit media machine that invented Whitewater, summoned a ridiculous impeachment, and misled us into war deployed every argument at its disposal to destroy the strongest non-incumbent and first female frontrunner for president in American history?

Or will these daffy distractions go the way of the media’s illusory concern for Ebola, the missing plane, and President Obama’s tan suit?
Who knows? But what we can say for sure is that truly historic things have unfolded this summer, and been only glanced at by a media transfixed on conflict and personality. Here are five events that history will definitely have to reckon with, even if the media would rather not.

1. The Iran deal.
On Sunday, Colin Powell joined Richard Lugar and Brent Scowcroft to support the deal the U.S., its European allies, China, and Russia reached with Iran to bring the nation under compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. These three former high-ranking Republicans represent the last remaining rinds of right-wing realism, and they join with 38 Democratic senators who have vowed to support the president’s veto on any attempt to undermine the agreement. Legitimate fears and concerns about Iran’s conduct have been overwhelmed by a calculus that assumes the rogue state is both canny enough to evade the laws of physics and suicidal enough to secretly build a bomb, knowing that would invite the world to destroy its economy and possibly the entire existence of the regime. This deal could be the first successful attempt in history to use diplomacy to dissuade a nation that has defied the world to swear off the pursuit of a nuclear weapon. It does not eliminate Iran’s ability to fund terrorism any more than our long relationship with Saudi Arabia prevented that nation and its citizens from funding terrorism, including the seeds of al Qaeda and ISIS. But it does stand in sharp contrast to the way America approached Iraq’s alleged nuclear program. This caution and realignment of strategies makes sense given the incredible humanitarian disaster that was fueled by the failures of the neoconservative approach to Iraq. If America were to suddenly shift back to the chauvinism of the recent past, either by choice or force, history would distinctly note how profoundly disappointing the collapse of this noble effort was.

2. Syrian refugee crisis.
No disaster has gone more ignored by the American media than the ongoing refugee crisis in the countries surrounding Syria. And that probably would have continued forever if a small percentage of those fleeing the war-torn nation had not begun to seep into Europe, and the world had not been shocked by the image of a dead toddler on a beach. Predictably, the right has advanced fantasies that more western interventionism could have fixed a problem ignited by western interventionism. There’s no doubt that the nations that have done the most to fuel the catastrophe—which include the United States, Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia—have done little to nothing to take responsibility for the brunt of this humanitarian crisis. From Europe, we’ve seen both images that conjure the vile specter of how Jews were treated in the 1930s and incredible acts of enlightened graciousness. Both will play a role in the European perception of the costs of a belief that the west can reshape the Middle East by force. But for America, the agony is still distant. And, for many, so are the lessons.

3. Climate change.
We joke that President Obama has done more to fight climate change than all other U.S. presidents combined because it’s impossible to multiply by zero. His stimulus was a ginormous green-energy bonanza that manifested an American renewables industry from almost nothing, leading us to a revolution that has now seen clean energy become cheaper in some instances than its dirty competitors. The president’s deal with China, the world’s largest carbon polluter, to limit emissions neutered the strongest argument against persistent climate action. This summer, the president presented his finalized plan for demanding power producers reduce their carbon output by 32 percent from what it was a decade ago, by 2032. This new rule is tougher on the states that have been the most recalcitrant in pursuing limitations on emissions, and arrives as we have increasing evidence that fighting climate change is actually helping the economy. This rule still needs to survive legal challenges, which seems likely given the current makeup of the Supreme Court, which rejected a Bush administration attack on regulating CO2 under the Clean Air Act in 2007. So like much of Obama’s legacy, this will truly be decided by the outcome of the 2016 election.

4. Record job growth.
We’ve finally recovered all the full-time jobs lost in the Great Recession and it only took a record 66 months of private-sector job growth. That Obama has gone from the president who prevented a greater depression to the steward of a genuine boom is too much to handle for many Republicans. They argue that his unemployment rate is only lower than anything ever achieved by Reagan because so many people have left the job market out of fear of contracting a bad case of Obama’s Muslim atheism. To make this argument, they have to ignore trends that have been going on for decades or reveal that they’re really upset that Baby Boomers are actually getting to retire. This isn’t to say the economy is perfect, at all. Wage growth is far too slow and too much of the recovery is going to the richest Americans, and this is a problem that Marco Rubio, for instance, wants to solve by cutting Mitt Romney’s taxes to zero. The economy is definitely not as good as we should demand. It’s just better than it’s been all century, and it’s showing great resilience despite persistent claims it would be destroyed by inflation, food stamps and — of course — Obamacare.

5. Obamacare wins.
Perhaps the most underreported story of the summer of 2015 is that Obamacare won again.

This wasn’t proven by the uninsured rate dropping below 10 percent for the first time in decades. Though that’s impressive. And it wasn’t proven by Obamacare spending its first two straight months receiving higher favorable than unfavorable ratings in the Kaiser Foundation’s tracking poll. That’s good, but nope.

This was proven by Scott Walker — the Koch brothers’ mascot — actually producing an Obamacare alternative that resembles… OBAMACARE. “At the talking-point level, Governor Walker’s plan sounds an awful lot like Obamacare,” said Larry Levitt, a senior vice president of Kaiser Family Foundation.

The big difference? It protects way fewer people, and the people it does protect aren’t those who need it the most. This isn’t surprising, but it’s proof that after a half-decade of vowing the destruction of Obamacare, even the most right-wing Republicans recognize that the American public will refuse to give up much of what the law offers. You can see why Republicans aren’t eager to have that story get out.

Israel: The Case Against Attacking Iran

bumper stickerMy Comments: George Friedman has an international reputation for his knowledge about how the world works and his ability to articulate credible analyses of what is going on. This is a fascinating article that’s very relevant to the current questions about Iran and how the world needs to respond to the existential threat they pose.

The Democrats and Republicans, mindful that most of us can only understand 5th grade words, attempt to create an “either or” decision in black and white. These words from George Friedman show how incredibly complex the issue is.  I have no clue how this is all going to play out, but I’m inclined to let professionals decide, mindful that they face the same ultimate risks you and I face. 75 years ago we were at war with Japan, but now co-exist as friends and allies. Freiedmans comments here are kinda long, so if you don’t give a damn about any of this, then simply ignore this post.

August 25, 2015 By George Friedman

On Aug. 21, Israeli Channel 2 Television aired a recording of Ehud Barak, Israel’s former defense minister and former prime minister, saying that on three separate occasions, Israel had planned to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities but canceled the attacks. According to Barak, in 2010 Israel’s chief of staff at the time, Gabi Ashkenazi, refused to approve an attack plan. Israeli Cabinet members Moshe Yaalon and Yuval Steinitz backed out of another plan, and in 2012 an attack was canceled because it coincided with planned U.S.-Israeli military exercises and a visit from then-U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
The fact that the interview was released at all is odd. Barak claimed to have believed that the tape would not be aired, and he supposedly tried unsuccessfully to stop the broadcast. It would seem that Barak didn’t have enough clout to pressure the censor to block it, which I suppose is possible.
Yaalon, like Ashkenazi, was once chief of staff of Israel Defense Forces but was also vice premier and Barak’s successor as defense minister. Steinitz had been finance minister and was vocal in his concerns about Iran. What Barak is saying, therefore, is that a chief of staff and a vice premier and former chief of staff blocked the planned attacks. As to the coinciding of a U.S.-Israeli exercise with a planned attack, that is quite puzzling, because such exercises are planned well in advance. Perhaps there was some weakness in Iranian defenses that opened and closed periodically, and that drove the timing of the attack. Or perhaps Barak was just confusing the issue.

A number of points are worth noting: Ehud Barak is not a man to speak casually about highly classified matters, certainly not while being recorded. Moreover, the idea that Barak was unable to persuade the military censor to block the airing of the recording is highly improbable. For some reason, Barak wanted to say this, and he wanted it broadcast.

Part of the reason might have been to explain why Israel, so concerned about Iran, didn’t take action against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Given the current debate in the U.S. Congress, that is a question that is undoubtedly being asked. The explanation Barak is giving seems to be that senior military and defense officials blocked the plans and that the Israelis didn’t want to upset the Americans by attacking during a joint exercise. The problem with this explanation is that it is well known that Israeli military and intelligence officials had argued against an Israeli strike and that the United States would have been upset whether or not joint exercises were occurring.

It would seem, intentionally or unintentionally, that Barak is calling Israeli attention to two facts. The first is that militarily taking out Iranian facilities would be difficult, and the second is that attempting to do so would affect relations with Israel’s indispensible ally, the United States. Military leaders’ opposition to the strikes had been rumored and hinted at in public statements by retired military and intelligence heads; Barak is confirming that those objections were the decisive reason Israel did not attack. The military was not sure it could succeed.

The Potential for Disastrous Failure

A military operation, like anything else in life, must be judged in two ways. First, what are the consequences of failure? Second, how likely is failure? Take, for example, the failure of the U.S. hostage rescue operation in 1980. Apart from the obvious costs, the failure gave the Iranian government reason to reduce its respect for U.S. power and thus potentially emboldened Iran to take more risks. Even more important, it enhanced the reputation of the Iranian government in the eyes of its people, both demonstrating that the United States threatened Iranian sovereignty and increasing the credibility of the government’s ability to defend Iran. Finally, it eroded confidence in U.S. political and military leaders among the U.S. public. In reducing the threat and the perception of threat, the failure of the operation gave the Iranian regime more room to maneuver.

For the Israelis, the price of failure in an attack on Iranian nuclear sites would have been substantial. One of Israel’s major strategic political assets is the public’s belief in its military competence. Forged during the 1967 war, the IDF’s public image has survived a number of stalemates and setbacks. A failure in Iran would damage that image even if, in reality, the military’s strength remained intact. Far more important, it would, as the failed U.S. operation did in 1980, enhance Iran’s position. Given the nature of the targets, any attack would likely require a special operations component along with airstrikes, and any casualties, downed pilots or commandos taken prisoner would create an impression of Israeli weakness contrasting with Iranian strength. That perception would be an immeasurable advantage for Iran in its efforts to accrue power in the region. Thus for Israel, the cost of failure would be extreme.

This must be measured against the possibility of success. In war, as in everything, the most obvious successes can evolve into failure. There were several potential points for failure in an attack on Iran. How confident were the Israelis that their intelligence on locations, fortifications and defenses were accurate? How confident were they that they could destroy the right targets? More important, perhaps, how certain could they be that the strikes had destroyed the targets? Finally, and most important, did they know what Iran’s recuperative capabilities were? How quickly could the Iranians restore their program? Frequently, an operationally successful assault does not deal with the strategic problem. The goal of an attack was to make Iran incapable of building a nuclear weapon; would destroying all known targets achieve that strategic goal?

One of the things to bear in mind is that the Iranians were as obsessed with Israeli and U.S. intelligence efforts as the Israelis and Americans were obsessed with the Iranian programs. Iran’s facilities were built to be protected from attack. The Iranians were also sophisticated in deception; knowing that they were being watched, they made efforts to confuse and mislead their observers. The Israelis could never be certain that they were not deceived by every supposedly reliable source, every satellite image and every intercepted phone call. Even if only one or two sources of information were actually misleading, which sources were they?

A failed Israeli assault on Iran would cause a major readjustment among other regional players in the way they perceive Israel and Iran. And for Israel, the perception of its military effectiveness is a strategic asset. There was a high risk of damaging that strategic asset in a failed operation, coupled with a strong chance that Israeli actions could unintentionally bolster Iran’s power in the region. The likelihood of success was thrown into question by Israel’s dependence on intelligence. In war, intelligence failure is a given. The issue is how great the failure will be — and there is no way to know until after the strike. Furthermore, operational success may not yield strategic success. Therefore, the ratio of potential risk versus reward argued against an attack.

Considering Iran’s Capabilities

There is another side to this equation: What exactly were the Iranians capable of? As I have argued before, enriched uranium is a necessary but insufficient component for a nuclear weapon. It is enough to create a device that can be detonated underground in controlled conditions. But the development of a weapon, as opposed to a device, requires extensive technology in miniaturization and ruggedization to ensure the weapon reaches its target. Those who fixated on progress in uranium enrichment failed to consider the other technologies necessary to create nuclear weaponry. Some, including myself, argued that the constant delays in completing a weapon were rooted both in the lack of critical technologies and in Iranian concerns about the consequence of failure.

Then there is the question of timing. A nuclear weapon would be most vulnerable at the moment it was completed and mounted on its delivery system. At that point, it would no longer be underground, and the Israelis would have an opportunity to strike when Iranians were in the process of marrying the weapon to the delivery device. Israel, and to an even greater extent the United States, has reconnaissance capabilities. The Iranians know that the final phase of weapon development is when they most risk detection and attack. The Israelis may have felt that, as risky as a future operation may seem, it was far less likely to fail than a premature attack.

Barak’s Motivations

Whether intentionally or not (and I suspect intentionally) Barak was calling attention, not to prior plans for an attack on Iran, but to the decision to abandon those plans. He pointed out that an Israeli chief of staff blocked one plan, a former chief of staff blocked a second plan and concern for U.S. sensibilities blocked a third. To put it in different terms, the Israelis considered and abandoned attacks on Iran on several occasions, when senior commanders or Cabinet members with significant military experience refused to approve the plan. Unmentioned was that neither the prime minister nor the Cabinet overruled them. Their judgment — and the judgment of many others — was that an attack shouldn’t be executed, at least not at that time.

Barak’s statement can be read as an argument for sanctions. If the generals have insufficient confidence in an attack, or if an attack can be permanently canceled because of an exercise with the Americans, then the only option is to increase sanctions. But Barak also knows that pain will not always bring capitulation. Sanctions might be politically satisfying to countries unable to achieve their ends through military action or covert means. As Barak undoubtedly knows, imposing further restrictions on Iran’s economy makes everyone feel something useful is being done. But sanctions, like military action, can produce unwelcome results. Measures far more painful than economic sanctions still failed to force capitulation in the United Kingdom or Germany, and did so in Japan only after atomic weapons were used. The bombing of North Vietnam did not cause capitulation. Sanctions on South Africa did work, but that was a deeply split nation with a majority in favor of the economic measures. Sanctions have not prompted Russia to change its policy. Imposing pain frequently unites a country and empowers the government. Moreover, unless sanctions rapidly lead to a collapse, they would not give Iran any motivation not to complete a nuclear weapon.

I don’t think Barak was making the case for sanctions. What he was saying is that every time the Israelis thought of military action against Iran, they decided not to do it. And he wasn’t really saying that the generals, ministers or the Americans blocked it. In actuality, he was saying that ultimately, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blocked it, because in the end, Netanyahu was in a position to force the issue if he wanted to. Barak was saying that Israel did not have a military option. He was not attacking Netanyahu for this decision; he was simply making it known.

It’s unlikely that Barak believes sanctions will compel Iran to abandon its nuclear program, any more the current agreement does. My guess is that for him, both are irrelevant. Either the Iranians do not have the ability or desire to build a bomb, or there will come a point when they can no longer hide the program — and that is the point when they will be most vulnerable to attack. It is at that moment, when the Iranians are seen arming a delivery system, that an Israeli or U.S. submarine will fire a missile and end the issue.

If Barak didn’t want a strike on Iran, if Netanyahu didn’t want a strike and if Barak has no confidence in agreements or sanctions, then Barak must have something in mind for dealing with an Iranian nuclear weapon — if it ever does appear. Barak is an old soldier who knows how to refrain from firing until he is most certain of success, even if the delay makes everyone else nervous. He is not a believer in diplomatic solutions, gestures to indirectly inflict pain or operations destined for failure. At any rate, he has revealed that Israel did not have an effective military option to hamper Iran’s nuclear program. And I find it impossible to believe he would rely on sanctions or diplomacy. Rather, he would wait to strike until Iran had committed to arming a delivery system, leaving itself wide open to attack — a nerve-racking solution, but one with the best chance of success.

Stopping the Iran Nuclear Deal

Nixon+ChinaMy Comments: Readers of my daily posts know I agree with the proposed agreement. I disagree with the notion that the inevitable outcome of failing to approve the deal is war with Iran. But that’s not to say there won’t be some serious negative consequences. Switzerland, for example, has already lifted most of it’s sanctions against Iran.

Stephen Collins Aug. 11, 2015

The fate of the nuclear deal with Iran appears to be in some jeopardy. Key democrats in Congress – most notably New York Senator Chuck Schumer – have recently announced that they would vote to reject the agreement. So passage of the agreement is far from a done deal, with more than two dozen Senate Democrats remaining in the uncertain column.

Opponents regard the deal with disdain, characterizing the accord to curtail Iran’s nuclear program as counterproductive, naïve and reminiscent of England’s appeasement of Nazi Germany.

Critics of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) are right to be skeptical of Iran’s commitment to multilateral accords. The International Atomic Energy Agency reported on several occasions – including in 2005, 2008 and 2011 – that Iran had violated important articles of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. But even given Iran’s lackluster record, I’d argue that a move by Congress to block the accord would result in a less favorable security outcome for the US and its allies.

The benefits of the deal for Iran are substantial. They include extensive sanctions relief that would allow Iran to resume oil export sales and gain access to frozen assets, estimated at US$55 billion. That would give the regime an enormous incentive to abide by the terms of the accord. In return for sanctions relief, Tehran has agreed to relinquish 98% of its supply of enriched uranium, limit its centrifuge operations and restrict enrichment to 3.67%. These actions would significantly lengthen Iran’s “breakout period,” or the time needed to create a nuclear weapon.

Additionally, the JCPOA also includes a carefully crafted verification protocol that permits intrusive and technically savvy inspections of known and suspected nuclear facilities.

Critics want to coerce Iran into complete capitulation so that it would cease all nuclear activities in perpetuity and allow “anywhere, anytime inspections.” Barring that, they advocate starving the regime so that it would be unable to afford nuclear, militant or terrorist activities.

But this sort of result was unfeasible. Short of Iran actually testing a nuclear device, the P5+1 – the US, Germany, China, UK, Russia and France – were never willing to support a marked increase in economic pressure.

What if the deal fails? A blocked deal would lead to several alarming consequences.

A no-deal Iran would have 33,000 pounds of enriched uranium instead of just 660 pounds. It would be able to produce enough fuel for a nuclear weapon in a few weeks instead of a full year.

If Tehran does aspire to build a nuclear weapon, as critics maintain, the dissolution of the deal would, in fact, facilitate their goal. The regime has publicly stated that it would speed up enrichment if the deal was blocked. Iran would also possess additional paths to a bomb without the deal’s prohibition on Iran reprocessing its plutonium.

What is more, the collapse of the plan would scuttle the enhanced transparency that the international community would have gained about Iran’s nuclear program as a result of inspections.

In the wake of a blocked deal, the solidarity underpinning the present multilateral, UN-backed sanctions program would dissipate. That would leave the US standing alone or with few allies. The historical record shows that without multilateral sanctions, the US lacks leverage to make Iran capitulate.

Additionally, China and Russia are likely to benefit by exploiting American obstinacy as an excuse to strike trade deals with Iran. That would bolster China’s economic and Russian’s strategic positions.

But the most dangerous diplomatic setback would be the effect a botched deal could have on America’s transatlantic alliances. America’s allies strongly back the deal. Blocking the JCPOA would quite likely result in a deep rift between the United States and its NATO allies, crippling support for future collaboration.

And then there is the question of how the sinking of the pact would complicate nonproliferation objectives far beyond the Middle East. America’s perceived unwillingness to negotiate on nuclear diplomacy would further marginalize any pro-diplomacy voices inside North Korea, arguably the more significant nuclear threat. Blocking the accord would ossify Pyongyang’s distrust of the US and give greater momentum to North Korea’s nuclear buildup.

Critics of the deal emphasize the danger presented by the windfall of unfrozen money Tehran will acquire. They predict that money will flow to Iran’s military and its investment in militant foreign activities, including sponsorship of terrorist organizations.

They’re not wrong – funding will probably flow in this direction. Still, the danger presented by this for the US and its regional allies is far less than the threat posed by the robust nuclear program that will likely emerge in the deal’s absence.

Moreover, the amount of funds freed up by the end of sanctions that will be devoted to military ends is probably much less than critics suggest.

Iran has pressing economic matters it must deal with immediately. The regime will have to invest between $100 billion and $200 billion in its oil and gas industries simply to reestablish past production levels. To satisfy the rising expectations of the public regarding the economic bounty it expects to materialize after the deal, the government will also have to invest in the domestic economy.

If the bulk of the unfrozen money does indeed flow to the military, the US and its allies might even benefit from a better financed Iranian military, which could use the new funds to step up its military operations against the Islamic State.

Still, simply signing a deal with Iran does not automatically make this episode of diplomacy a success. The devil is indeed in the details – implementation and verification.

The international community must prove its resolve to Iran. Iran must be shown that it will be held accountable and that automatic “snapback” provisions of the deal will be reimposed in response to a significant and unresolved violation.

The deal indeed fails to achieve all that the US could have hoped for. Still, the accord offers a credible path to a peaceful resolution of the crisis, and therefore it would be far too risky to turn it down.

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Saudi Arabia May Go Broke Soon

My Comments:  If Saudi Arabia ceases to function and Iran has a nuclear weapon, what are the implications for the rest of the world?

I accept that I’ll be just a memory by 2045. However, the United States may then be the only country on the planet with the ability to both unilaterally feed itself and produce 100% of the energy it needs. Food and fuel are as critical today as they were millennia ago.

Yes, there are environmental reasons to oppose fracking anywhere in the world but you have to admit the technology has the potential to dramatically change existing global economic and political dynamics.

How all this plays out politically with concurrent changes to existing global security arrangements is yet to be seen. It helps explain Russia’s recent moves to be more aggressive and paranoid about their future. As for Saudi Arabia, without oil to pump, they become a ghost town. We need to think about all this as we argue for or against the pending Iran nuclear deal.

By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard 05 Aug 2015

If the oil futures market is correct, Saudi Arabia will start running into trouble within two years. It will be in existential crisis by the end of the decade.

The contract price of US crude oil for delivery in December 2020 is currently $62.05, implying a drastic change in the economic landscape for the Middle East and the petro-rentier states.

The Saudis took a huge gamble last November when they stopped supporting prices and opted instead to flood the market and drive out rivals, boosting their own output to 10.6m barrels a day (b/d) into the teeth of the downturn.

Bank of America says OPEC is now “effectively dissolved”. The cartel might as well shut down its offices in Vienna to save money.

If the aim was to choke the US shale industry, the Saudis have misjudged badly, just as they misjudged the growing shale threat at every stage for eight years. “It is becoming apparent that non-OPEC producers are not as responsive to low oil prices as had been thought, at least in the short-run,” said the Saudi central bank in its latest stability report.

“The main impact has been to cut back on developmental drilling of new oil wells, rather than slowing the flow of oil from existing wells. This requires more patience,” it said.

One Saudi expert was blunter. “The policy hasn’t worked and it will never work,” he said.

By causing the oil price to crash, the Saudis and their Gulf allies have certainly killed off prospects for a raft of high-cost ventures in the Russian Arctic, the Gulf of Mexico, the deep waters of the mid-Atlantic, and the Canadian tar sands.

Consultants Wood Mackenzie say the major oil and gas companies have shelved 46 large projects, deferring $200bn of investments.

The problem for the Saudis is that US shale frackers are not high-cost. They are mostly mid-cost, and as I reported from the CERAWeek energy forum in Houston, experts at IHS think shale companies may be able to shave those costs by 45pc this year – and not only by switching tactically to high-yielding wells.

Advanced pad drilling techniques allow frackers to launch five or ten wells in different directions from the same site. Smart drill-bits with computer chips can seek out cracks in the rock. New dissolvable plugs promise to save $300,000 a well. “We’ve driven down drilling costs by 50pc, and we can see another 30pc ahead,” said John Hess, head of the Hess Corporation.

It was the same story from Scott Sheffield, head of Pioneer Natural Resources. “We have just drilled an 18,000 ft well in 16 days in the Permian Basin. Last year it took 30 days,” he said.

The North American rig-count has dropped to 664 from 1,608 in October but output still rose to a 43-year high of 9.6m b/d June. It has only just begun to roll over. “The freight train of North American tight oil has kept on coming,” said Rex Tillerson, head of Exxon Mobil.

He said the resilience of the sister industry of shale gas should be a cautionary warning to those reading too much into the rig-count. Gas prices have collapsed from $8 to $2.78 since 2009, and the number of gas rigs has dropped 1,200 to 209. Yet output has risen by 30pc over that period.

Until now, shale drillers have been cushioned by hedging contracts. The stress test will come over coming months as these expire. But even if scores of over-leveraged wild-catters go bankrupt as funding dries up, it will not do OPEC any good.

The wells will still be there. The technology and infrastructure will still be there. Stronger companies will mop up on the cheap, taking over the operations. Once oil climbs back to $60 or even $55 – since the threshold keeps falling – they will crank up production almost instantly.

OPEC now faces a permanent headwind. Each rise in price will be capped by a surge in US output. The only constraint is the scale of US reserves that can be extracted at mid-cost, and these may be bigger than originally supposed, not to mention the parallel possibilities in Argentina and Australia, or the possibility for “clean fracking” in China as plasma pulse technology cuts water needs.

Mr Sheffield said the Permian Basin in Texas could alone produce 5-6m b/d in the long-term, more than Saudi Arabia’s giant Ghawar field, the biggest in the world.

Saudi Arabia is effectively beached. It relies on oil for 90pc of its budget revenues. There is no other industry to speak of, a full fifty years after the oil bonanza began.

Citizens pay no tax on income, interest, or stock dividends. Subsidized petrol costs twelve cents a litre at the pump. Electricity is given away for 1.3 cents a kilowatt-hour. Spending on patronage exploded after the Arab Spring as the kingdom sought to smother dissent.

The International Monetary Fund estimates that the budget deficit will reach 20pc of GDP this year, or roughly $140bn. The ‘fiscal break-even price’ is $106.

Far from retrenching, King Salman is spraying money around, giving away $32bn in a coronation bonus for all workers and pensioners.

He has launched a costly war against the Houthis in Yemen and is engaged in a massive military build-up – entirely reliant on imported weapons – that will propel Saudi Arabia to fifth place in the world defence ranking.

The Saudi royal family is leading the Sunni cause against a resurgent Iran, battling for dominance in a bitter struggle between Sunni and Shia across the Middle East. “Right now, the Saudis have only one thing on their mind and that is the Iranians. They have a very serious problem. Iranian proxies are running Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon,” said Jim Woolsey, the former head of the US Central Intelligence Agency.

Money began to leak out of Saudi Arabia after the Arab Spring, with net capital outflows reaching 8pc of GDP annually even before the oil price crash. The country has since been burning through its foreign reserves at a vertiginous pace.

The reserves peaked at $737bn in August of 2014. They dropped to $672 in May. At current prices they are falling by at least $12bn a month.

Khalid Alsweilem, a former official at the Saudi central bank and now at Harvard University, said the fiscal deficit must be covered almost dollar for dollar by drawing down reserves.

The Saudi buffer is not particularly large given the country’s fixed exchange system. Kuwait, Qatar, and Abu Dhabi all have three times greater reserves per capita. “We are much more vulnerable. That is why we are the fourth rated sovereign in the Gulf at AA-. We cannot afford to lose our cushion over the next two years,” he said.

Standard & Poor’s lowered its outlook to “negative” in February. “We view Saudi Arabia’s economy as undiversified and vulnerable to a steep and sustained decline in oil prices,” it said.

Mr Alsweilem wrote in a Harvard report that Saudi Arabia would have an extra trillion of assets by now if it had adopted the Norwegian model of a sovereign wealth fund to recyle the money instead of treating it as a piggy bank for the finance ministry. The report has caused storm in Riyadh.

“We were lucky before because the oil price recovered in time. But we can’t count on that again,” he said.

OPEC have left matters too late, though perhaps there is little they could have done to combat the advances of American technology.

In hindsight, it was a strategic error to hold prices so high, for so long, allowing shale frackers – and the solar industry – to come of age. The genie cannot be put back in the bottle.

The Saudis are now trapped. Even if they could do a deal with Russia and orchestrate a cut in output to boost prices – far from clear – they might merely gain a few more years of high income at the cost of bringing forward more shale production later on.

Yet on the current course their reserves may be down to $200bn by the end of 2018. The markets will react long before this, seeing the writing on the wall. Capital flight will accelerate.

The government can slash investment spending for a while – as it did in the mid-1980s – but in the end it must face draconian austerity. It cannot afford to prop up Egypt and maintain an exorbitant political patronage machine across the Sunni world.

Social spending is the glue that holds together a medieval Wahhabi regime at a time of fermenting unrest among the Shia minority of the Eastern Province, pin-prick terrorist attacks from ISIS, and blowback from the invasion of Yemen.

Diplomatic spending is what underpins the Saudi sphere of influence in a Middle East suffering its own version of Europe’s Thirty Year War, and still reeling from the after-shocks of a crushed democratic revolt.

We may yet find that the US oil industry has greater staying power than the rickety political edifice behind OPEC.

Obama’s Long, Hot Iranian Summer

My Comments: To deal or not to deal, that is the question. Most people are focused on the political implications of the agreement, and whether it’s a good deal for us or not. I’m very concerned about the economic implications as well. My blog post tomorrow talks about the high probability that Saudi Arabia will completely exhaust its currency reserves by the end of this decade. This has the potential to completely rearrange the balance of power in  the Middle East, and if Iran is free to resume building a nuclear weapon, we’re all in trouble.

The net effect of these two seemingly unrelated circumstances could lead to a conflict of biblical proportions in the Middle East. We are now involved with Turkey in attempting to reverse the gains made by ISIS. Couple that with the financial relationship we have with Saudi Arabia, to name just one country, the chances of a dramatic shift in the balance of power if we cannot contain the nuclear ambitions of Iran increases dramatically.

Granted, the agreement cannot ultimately guarantee that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon. But it does realistically allow some time for counter measures to get put in place. If the outcome is the removal of the Saudi government in its present form, all bets are off. Never mind the lives to be lost in a conflict between the US and Iran, imagine the cost to us and the rest of the free world if the oil now flowing to Europe, Russia, China, India, etc. from Saudi Arabia stops. Talk about a global economic crisis. And all because few people in Congress are willing to look beyond their hatred of Obama. Dumb, and you and I will pay for it, again.

Edward Luce, August 2, 2015

A US rejection of the deal would give Tehran a green light to revive their nuclear agenda

Six years ago, Barack Obama’s big domestic reform almost went up in flames during an August of town hall protests. He was accused of trying to set up death panels for the elderly. This time his big foreign policy deal is under fire — though the allegation has not changed.

The Iran nuclear deal will apparently create a death panel just for Israel. The difference in 2015 is that Mr Obama is already lobbying Congress. His legacy, and the future of the Middle East, hinges on whether the deal survives next month’s vote on Capitol Hill.

The noisiest protest will take place on Thursday when the top 10 Republican candidates appear on Fox News for their first presidential debate. Among them will be Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, who believes the deal “will take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven”. Ted Cruz, the Texas senator, says: “Hundreds of billions [sic] of dollars will flow to Iran that they will use to fund radical Islamic terrorism to murder Americans.” Donald Trump says Mr Obama has been taken “to the cleaners”. Only Jeb Bush has risked nuance. He has been pilloried for saying Republicans should be more “mature and thoughtful” about it. Yet he, too, says the deal should be binned.

Will it survive the onslaught? That depends on Mr Obama’s own party. To a person, Republican lawmakers oppose the deal, some apocalyptically. Even former isolationists, such as Rand Paul, who will also appear on the Fox podium, are now hawkish on the Islamic Republic. Much like Obamacare, the Iran deal will rely solely on Democratic votes on Capitol Hill. Many are wavering. To salvage the deal, Mr Obama must use his veto to override an all but certain majority vote against it. He will need a third of either chamber to do so. That means either 34 of the 46 Senate Democrats or 145 of the 188 House Democrats.

It will boil down to whether he, or Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, holds more sway with undecided Democrats. Chief among them is Chuck Schumer, the New York senator, and probable next leader of the Senate Democrats. Mr Netanyahu has said Israel’s survival as a nation is at stake. In fact, it is his own job security as the country’s leader that is in the balance. He has built his career on hyping the existential threat from Iran. His coalition controls just 61 of 120 Knesset seats. He broke all rules in March by speaking to the US Congress against a president’s set piece initiative. Never before has a foreign ally done anything this egregious. Having breached the limits once, he has nothing to lose. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee and its allies plan to spend up to $40m lobbying against the deal. Much of it will be targeted at Mr Schumer. Mr Netanyahu will be working the phones as furiously as Mr Obama.

It is easy to forget that America’s legislature is supposed to be evaluating what is in America’s national interests. But Mr Obama’s real task is to convince fellow Democrats it will be good for Israel’s security. On paper, this ought to be straightforward. Though undeclared, Israel has an estimated 80 nuclear warheads. It also has “triad” capabilities – it can launch missiles from sea, air and land. Opponents of the deal say it will unleash a Middle East arms race. But as Bruce Riedel, a former senior official at the Central Intelligence Agency, put it: “A nuclear arms race has been underway in the Middle East for 65 years. Israel won it.” For the next 15 years at least, Mr Obama’s Iran deal cements Israel’s status as the Middle East’s sole nuclear weapons state.

Mr Netanyahu’s allies say the deal will unfreeze $150bn for Iran to spend on terrorism. This is absurd on multiple levels. First, the US Treasury says just $55bn in assets will be repatriated. Much will remain frozen under sanctions unrelated to Iran’s nuclear programme.

Second, Iran already spends what it wants on its regional proxies: unlike nuclear weapons, terrorism is a cheap business. With at least $3bn in annual US military aid — and more promised by Mr Obama — Israel has more than enough ability to keep defeating Hizbollah and Hamas on the battlefield.

Third, Iran suffers from an estimated $500bn in infrastructure backlog, of which up to $200bn is needed to reboot its oil industry. Iran’s government was elected on the promise of restoring economic growth. It will lose office if it wastes too much of the proceeds on foreign adventurism.

Would a rejection by Congress lead to a better deal? This is critics’ most frequent line. It is a fantasy. Rather than bringing Iran back to the table, America’s unilateral rejection of a deal it negotiated will push its own partners away. The horse has already bolted. Countries such as China, Russia and India have made it clear that they will resume trading ties with Iran regardless of what Congress does. Even the European three — the UK, France and Germany — are likely to press on. Moreover, a US rejection would give Iran’s hardliners a green light to revive their nuclear agenda. Instead of waiting a decade or more, Tehran could develop a warhead within months, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Facts, as they say, are stubborn things. But perception matters more. The chances are that Mr Obama can scrape together enough support to uphold this deal. But it will be close. Either he or Mr Netanyahu will end this summer victorious.