A hard look at what we must not allow

The expected effects of an Iranian nuclear attack.

September 4, 2011 06:49
Iranian clerics stand by missile near Qom

Iranian clerics missile_521. (photo credit: Reuters)

This is the dead land
This is cactus land....
T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

For a variety of reasons, neither Israel nor the US has exercised its lawful right of anticipatory self-defense against Iran. As a result, Iran’s entry into the Nuclear Club is effectively a fait accompli. In Israel, remaining self-defense options will necessarily be limited to inherently fallible programs and expanded active defense. Unlike a no-longerviable preemptive option, these programs would come into play only after an Iranian nuclear force has been deployed, or after an Iranian nuclear attack.

There is also a vital antecedent question. Should Washington and Jerusalem expect a newly-nuclear Tehran to be fully rational? What could happen to Israel if certain Iranian leaders with nuclear weapons value certain presumed religious obligations more highly than their own state’s survival? Ironically, and notwithstanding growing hopes for democracy, a regime change in Tehran could yield a heightened likelihood of irrationality.

There can be no assurances that any post-Ahmadinejad regime would be “better.”

IRRATIONALITY is not the same as madness. Even an irrational Iranian leadership could retain a distinct hierarchy of preferences. This would likely be less dangerous than facing a genuinely mad adversary, or one that is entirely unpredictable. In any event, as it is not up to Israel to decide which type of adversary it would prefer, Jerusalem needs to plan carefully for all three contingencies.

Whether rational, irrational or mad, any Iranian leadership that slouches toward major conflict with the “Zionist entity” could, perhaps in less than three years, unleash regional nuclear war. This could be deliberate or inadvertent, as a “bolt from the blue,” or as a fully unintended result of an inexorable religious commitment to Jihad against “unbelievers,” let alone for much more mundane reasons such as miscalculation, accident or coup d’état.

Thirty-one years ago, I published the first of 10 books that contained authoritative descriptions of the consequences of nuclear war – any nuclear war. These descriptions were drawn largely from a still-valid 1975 report by the National Academy of Sciences, and included the following outcomes: large temperature changes; contamination of food and water; disease epidemics in crops, domesticated animals and humans due to ionizing radiation; shortening of growing seasons; irreversible injury to aquatic species; widespread and long-term cancers due to inhalation of plutonium particles; radiation-induced abnormalities in persons in utero at the time of detonations; a vast growth in the number of skin cancers, and increasing genetic disease.

Overwhelming health problems would afflict the survivors. These difficulties would extend beyond prompt burn injuries. Retinal burns would even occur in people far from the actual explosions.

Tens of thousands would be crushed by collapsing buildings, or torn to shreds by flying glass. Others would fall victim to raging firestorms. Fallout injuries would include whole-body radiation; superficial radiation burns produced by soft radiation; and injuries produced by deposits of radioactive substances in the body.

After an Iranian nuclear attack – even a “small” one – those few medical facilities that might still exist in Israel would be taxed beyond capacity.

Water supplies would become unusable. Housing and shelter could be unavailable for millions. Transportation would revert to rudimentary levels. Food shortages would be critical and long-term.

Virtually everyone would be deprived of the most basic means of livelihood. Emergency police and fire services would be decimated. All systems dependent on electrical power could stop. Severe trauma would occasion widespread disorientation and psychiatric disorders.

Normal human society would cease. Unrestrained murder and banditry could soon augment plague and epidemics. Many survivors would suffer serious degenerative diseases. They would also expect impaired vision and sterility. An increased incidence of leukemia and cancers of the lung, stomach, breast, ovary and cervix would be unavoidable.

Israelis who survive would still have to deal with mushrooming insect hordes spreading from the radiation-damaged areas. Tens or even hundreds of thousands of rotting corpses would pose the largest health threat. Insects are generally more resistant to radiation than humans. This fact, coupled with uncontrolled waste and untreated sewage, would generate tens of trillions of flies and mosquitoes. These insects would make it impossible to control typhus, malaria, dengue fever and encephalitis.

Reciprocally, all these effects would be unleashed upon Iran. An immediate massive Israeli retaliation would be certain. In Iran, the eagerly expected joys of “martyrdom” would fade in a flash.

IN ITS newest report, released in June 2011, the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) “remains concerned about the possible existence in Iran of past or current undisclosed nuclear-related activities involving military-related organizations.” Now, when effective preemption or “anticipatory selfdefense” by Israel or the US is likely no longer practicable, and when any sustained nuclear deterrence would be unstable and unpredictable, Jerusalem may need to place most of its survival bets on ballistic missile defense (the Arrow and the shorterrange Iron Dome).

These gambles cannot be permitted to fail – an imperative that may require IDF planners to begin disclosing specific features of Israel’s nuclear posture, including limited information about secure nuclear bases, counter-city targeting, and cumulative penetration capability.

If, for any reason, these efforts to reduce “deliberate ambiguity” do not succeed, there would be no lilacs to breed out of the now “dead land.”

Rather, before anything fully human could be born, a pitifully sorrowful gravedigger would have to wield the forceps.

LOUIS RENÉ BERES was educated at Princeton (PhD, 1971), and is Prof. of International Law at Purdue. Born in Zürich, he is the author of several major books on nuclear war, including Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (Westview, 1979); and Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (D.C. Heath, Lexington Books, 1986). Some of his most recent articles on these issues have appeared in The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs.

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