If the US or Israel bombs Iran's nuclear facilities, can Iran strike back at Israel with weapons of mass destruction? This is obviously a vital question to answer before deciding whether to use the "military option." Unfortunately, there is no one conclusive answer.
Yiftah Shapir, an expert on missile warfare at Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Strategic Studies (formerly the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies), a leading strategic think tank, says Iran might well be able to retaliate with chemical weapons - meaning poison gas or liquid loaded onto missiles.
However, he continues, chemically-armed missiles aren't much more destructive than conventionally-armed ones, so the damage would be comparable to the surprisingly little harm caused by Iraqi Scuds in the 1991 Gulf War. As for the worst-case scenario - an Iranian retaliation with biological weapons, such as bubonic plague or anthrax, or nerve gas - it's highly unlikely that Iran has or will have the ability to successfully fire missiles with such warheads, Shapir says.
Ephraim Kam, an expert on Iran at the same institute, doesn't think Iran can retaliate against Israel with either chemical or biological weapons - for now. However, he thinks it could have the ability to do so in another three or four years.
For yet a third opinion, Dany Shoham, an expert on chemical and biological weapons at Bar-Ilan University's BESA Center, another leading strategic think tank, says Iran "in all likelihood" now has the capability to launch missiles armed with either chemical or biological warheads. To neutralize that threat, the US or Israel would have to first take out Iran's biological warheads or missile launchers before hitting its nuclear facilities. Failing that, Israel's Arrow or Patriot anti-missile batteries would have to knock out Iran's missiles en route.
But if Iran decided to strike back at Israel with its worst weapons - missiles armed with plague, anthrax, nerve gas or other catastrophic substances - and Israel failed to wipe them out on the ground or in the air, the effect of even one of those missiles landing, says Shoham, would be "bad." Asked what he means by "bad," he declines to elaborate, saying, "I don't want to terrify the readers."
THE LACK OF consensus on Iran's strategic profile goes beyond the question of what sort of WMD it has or doesn't have. Among experts, there are several points of contention on the sorts of issues that need to be understood before Israel or the US reaches a decision on their most worrisome political dilemma - what to do about Iran and its nuclear weapons program.
A lot has been written and said about the dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran and about the possibility of bombing its nuclear facilities out of existence. Much less, however, has been written and said about the dangers of such a preemptive strike. However, this is starting to change.
On the eve of his trip to the US to meet with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the beginning of June, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, a former chief of General Staff and defense minister, gave an interview to Yediot Aharonot in which he warned of the possible "destructive consequences" of a US attack on Iran. "An American attack, Mofaz tells close associates, is liable to set the entire Middle East ablaze and cause incalculable damage to Israel's population, and even to European countries," Yediot said.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, Mofaz warned: "The potential for a regional escalation as a result of [a preemptive] attack is great. Iran sees Israel as a target and has ballistic missiles that can reach every European capital. If it responds, then Hizbullah will respond and maybe Syria, and we don't even know how Hamas will respond." (At the same time, though, Mofaz did not rule out the military option against Iran's nuclear facilities.)
This month, The New York Times reported that the weight of opinion influencing US President George W. Bush now leans against a preemptive strike in the event that diplomacy fails, because the risks are seen as prohibitive. This is the stance taken by the State Department and the Pentagon, the Times reported, while only Vice President Dick Cheney, among Bush's closest circle, still favors a last-option attack on Iran's facilities - and his influence is on the wane.
There is an endless array of questions that have to be asked and judgments that have to be made before a decision is taken on whether to launch a preemptive attack on Iran. This article is concerned only with the question of the possible cost in human lives of such an attack. It breaks this question down into four parts, taken chronologically from the point of impact of the preemptive strike: 1) How many Iranian civilians would die or be wounded? 2) What weapons does Iran have for a retaliatory strike against Israel? 3) How would Iran decide to respond, and how damaging could it be to Israelis? 4) How effective would Israel's protective measures - the Arrow and Patriot anti-missile batteries, home security rooms and gas masks - prove against such an attack?
Not only do experts disagree on the answers to some of these questions, their answers often are hedged with uncertainty because there are so many unknowns. For example, Iran's decision on which weapons to use in retaliation might depend on the extent of civilian casualties it suffered in the preemptive attack.
The views expressed by Shapir, Kam and Shoham (other strategic analysts declined to be interviewed) make it clear that the question of what to do about Iran cannot be answered strictly "from the gut." It is too complex for either a Patton or Gandhi approach. When the moment of decision finally arrives, the possible human cost of a preemptive strike will have to be weighed against the possible human cost of a nuclear-armed Iran. Again, because so much attention has been given to the latter issue, this article deals only with the former one.
Only Shoham would offer an estimate of Iranian civilian casualties in a preemptive attack on Iran's nuclear facilities: "From dozens to thousands," he says, depending on how much radioactive leakage was caused.
Iran has a population of 70 million, and several of its major nuclear facilities are located in or near major cities. The installations are heavily protected, with some of them underground and covered by dozens of meters of concrete, while others are in unknown sites. It is considered impossible to wipe out all of the facilities, but it may be possible to cripple a number of critical sites and set back Iran's nuclear ambitions by some years. Kam says at least three or four facilities would need to be hit to do an effective job, while Shoham puts the maximum number of necessary targets at 15.
Such a mission would require an onslaught of bombs and missiles. The Sunday Times has reported that the IAF is training to drop bunker-busting "mini-nukes" on Iran's installations because they are so heavily fortified. The German magazine Focus has quoted Prime Minister Ehud Olmert saying it would require "10 days and 1,000 Tomahawk cruise missiles," a statement he has denied making.
Shoham says the number of civilian casualties would depend on whether the bombed-out facilities were radioactive and how much radiation resulted. Asked if radiation were a likely consequence of a preemptive attack, he replies, "The answer is more likely yes than no." He adds that as time passes, the likelihood of radiation, and the amount that would be released, goes up. "Without radiation, there would be dozens of dead and injured," he says, noting that the missiles can be targeted "very precisely." But he adds: "If there is a lot of radioactive leakage, the number of casualties could reach into the thousands, at the maximum."
Iran has missiles - the Shihab-3 - with more than enough range to hit Israel. However, according to the three experts interviewed, it doesn't have that many, only "dozens" or "several dozen" or "about 50" of them, at least for now.
There is no question that Iran has chemical and biological agents that can cause "mass destruction." However, chemical agents present a much lower threat than biological weapons. The worst chemical attack in history took place over a few days in 1988, when Saddam Hussein launched a poison gas attack on the Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja, which was pro-Iranian in the Iran-Iraq war. As many as 5,000 people died or suffered terrible injuries. Yet Shapir says a heavy attack with conventional missiles on a village such as Halabja would likely have caused just as many casualties as the poison gas. "The Red Army, for instance, never considered chemical weapons to be any more damaging than conventional weapons," he adds.
But biological weapons, which carry live viruses, are a different story. While they have been used a few times on a very small scale - most recently in the post-9/11 anthrax letters to East Coast news media and politicians that killed five people - they have never been loaded on a missile or otherwise aimed at a large population. Rudolph Giuliani's stated fear - that someone would climb to the top of the Empire State Building and sprinkle biological agents into the air - hasn't materialized. Such an act, or an attack on a major city with a missile with a warhead carrying anthrax, plague, VX or another biological agent, could - if the bomb exploded "successfully" - kill millions.
The first question, then, is whether Iran has the capability of fashioning its biological agents into a warhead that can be attached to a Shihab-3 missile. Shoham is convinced it now has that capability. Kam thinks it doesn't, but may in three to four years. Shapir pretty much rules out the possibility of this ever happening, arguing that biological weapons are too much of a question mark to seriously interest military planners in Iran or anywhere else.
But supposing that Iran could fire a biologically-armed missile at Israel, the second question is whether it would do its intended damage on impact. Shapir says that since such a missile has never been fired, it's impossible to say. "A biological weapon is made up of living material - you don't know if it would survive on a [superheated] missile. If it did survive and explode on impact, you don't know how far it might spread - whether it might eventually come back at the user's own country as well. Generals don't like to use weapons they can't control," he says.
Since Shapir discounts the possibility of a biological counterstrike and considers the remainder of Iran's arsenal to be no more threatening than Saddam's Scuds, he is not overly worried by Shihab-3 missiles. "I think the bigger threat is from terror attacks. They'll blow up Israeli embassies all over the world; they'll blow up Jewish targets all over the world. They've already shown they can do it. We can expect a lot of Argentinas," he says, referring to the 1994 bombing of a Buenos Aires Jewish community center that killed 85 people, in which Iran and Hizbullah were implicated.
Kam says Iran's response would be greater than the Iraqi Scuds, but still "not very dramatic, not enough to decide the battle." He is figuring on Iran's use of conventional ballistic missiles with large warheads, "so there might be high casualties." Otherwise, he basically takes the same view as Shapir, forecasting attacks on Israeli and Jewish targets abroad, which are harder to protect.
So in both Shapir's and Kam's view, Iran will simply hit back as hard as it can with conventional missiles and proxy terror, which is all it has for now. For Shoham, however, the question of retaliation is extremely iffy because in his view, Iran has the capability of firing chemical or biological weapons right now, so it has a much broader range of responses to choose from - and much greater potential consequences to consider.
If Iran retaliates with WMD against Israel, it is knowingly putting its own survival in grave, immediate danger because of America's far superior WMD arsenal, which includes nuclear weapons. Yet Shoham holds that not only is such a move a possibility, it is an "appreciably" greater possibility than the one that preoccupies so many Israelis - that Iran, after it developed nuclear weapons, would initiate a nuclear attack on Israel even at the cost of its own survival. He reasons that Iran would be much more liable to choose mutually assured destruction after being attacked by Israel or the US than before.
Shoham divides Iran's possible responses into "maximal" and "submaximal," with submaximal probably meaning Iranian and Syrian ballistic missile attacks combined with Hizbullah and Hamas terror attacks. "The impact on Israel from this would certainly not be negligible," he says.
As for the maximal response - firing chemical and biological missiles - Shoham says, "If you refer only to the pronouncements of [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, then it's clear Iran will decide to retaliate at the maximal level, but he's not the only decision-maker." The likelihood, he says, is that an Iranian counterattack would be proportional to the destructiveness of the US and/or Israeli strike.
The only experience Israel has with protective measures against missiles came in the 1991 Gulf War when it fired the computerized, supposedly spot-on Patriots at Saddam's 39 incoming Scuds. Unfortunately, very few of the Scuds were destroyed. In a 1992 congressional investigation into the effectiveness of the Patriots against the Scuds, MIT Prof. Theodore Postol testified that postwar studies "indicate that the Patriot's intercept rate could [have been] much lower than 10 percent, possibly even zero." But that was 16 years ago; presumably the Patriots have been improved since.
The front line of Israel's missile defense is now the Arrow system, which has been tested extensively but never used in battle. "Those responsible for the Arrow think it could work," says Kam. He and Shapir agree that the more Shihab-3 missiles the Iranians fire in a single volley, the harder it would be for the Arrow to take them out. "If the Iranians fire one a day, the Arrow could intercept all of them. If they fire their missiles all at once, some could get through," says Shapir, and Kam agrees.
The usefulness of Israelis' personal defensive measures - gas masks and sealed security rooms - has never been tested against an actual WMD attack because there has never been one here. Over the years, there have been a litany of problems with the gas masks, Shoham notes, while adding that these problems are solvable. Assuming the gas masks were in perfect working order and distributed to all Israelis in time, they could, theoretically, defend against a poison gas attack.
However, many biological agents such as anthrax and VX enter through the skin, so in such cases gas masks would be of no use. A privately-purchased protective suit could be effective, but outfitting all 7 million Israelis is not in the cards. And if anthrax, bubonic plague, botulism, nerve agents or the like were loosed among Israel's population, it's highly speculative whether, or for how long, people could survive wearing gas masks or even protective suits inside their sealed rooms.
BUT THE RISKS of preemption are only some of the issues that US and Israeli leaders are going to have to address if Iran does not abandon its nuclear project. I asked the three experts whether, when taking everything into account, they supported or opposed a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities as a last resort, if diplomacy should fail. I got three different answers.
Shoham leans toward the military option. In his view, the danger from a nuclear Iran is "unbearable." He explains that a nuclear Iran would raise the tension in the Middle East and the West so high that it would set off a chain reaction of fear and aggression such that a nuclear war would become likely. Better, he says, to take the risks involved in preemption.
But Shoham reiterates that the consequences of a possible Iranian chemical or biological attack on Israel and/or American targets in the Gulf are so extraordinarily grave that they must be neutralized before a preemptive strike can be launched. Neutralizing the risk, he says, means taking out Iran's missile launchers or biological weapons, which means finding them, which means getting extremely good intelligence. It also means having dependable back-up protection, which means perfecting the Arrow. It's a huge challenge, but Shoham thinks it can be done, and since the threat of a nuclear Iran is, in his view, "unbearable," it must be done.
Shapir, however, leans against the military option. He says he's "very skeptical" about the possibility of destroying Iran's nuclear potential militarily, adding that even if a preemptive strike were successful, it wouldn't end the threat. Iran would step up its nuclear program and its reconstructed facilities would have to be bombed again and again.
Because Iran has such a strong incentive to develop nuclear weapons, Shapir assumes it will do so. Diplomacy and sanctions are likely to fail, he thinks, and then Israel and the West will have to learn to live with a nuclear Iran. The good news is that living with a nuclear Iran is not only possible, he believes, but inevitable.
"The chance that Iran will launch a nuclear first strike is low," Shapir says, arguing that it is deterred by American nuclear might. Based on the 62-year history of the nuclear age, what will probably happen, he says, is that a "dialogue" will develop between Iran and its enemies - as it did between the US and the Soviet Union, and as it recently did between arch-enemies India and Pakistan. "Strategic logic is stronger than any ideology," he maintains.
Kam says there are too many unknowns for him to take a blanket position for or against a preemptive strike, explaining that it depends on the intelligence available at the moment of decision, which will only arrive if and when it becomes clear that diplomatic measures have failed. Since he believes Iran is still three or four years away from having the capability of retaliating against Israel with WMD-armed missiles, the risk to the home front is less critical to Kam than the risk that a preemptive attack would fail. And the risk of failure is higher, he says, if Israel does the job than if the US does it.
If the US were to pass on the military option, says Kam, Israel could only take on such an operation "if we have quite accurate intelligence on what sort of damage we could do to Iran's underground nuclear sites. If a preemptive attack could push their nuclear program back several years, that would be one thing. If an attack could only push it back one year, I'm not sure it would be worthwhile to take the risk."
So there we have it. On the supreme strategic dilemma of our time - whether to bomb Iran's nukes or not - the expert view is: Yes, no, I don't know. On the narrower, but still fateful question of how Iran would react to such a bombing, there is also ambiguity.
In making a decision on whether to choose the military option, a lesson may be drawn from the American decision to launch the war in Iraq. Instead of weighing the risks of invasion alongside those of leaving Saddam in power, the Bush administration concentrated almost solely on the latter - to bitter result. Iran now presents an even more dangerous dilemma; this time around, both of the risks - the risk of Iranian nuclear arms andthe risk of preempting them - have to be faced, then weighed in the balance before decision time arrives.