A Radioactive Situation
Eric S. Margolis
Not so very long ago, open discussions of a possible Israeli or American attacks on Iran’s nuclear military and civilian infrastructure would have seemed beyond the realm of reality. But in today’s super-heated climate of hysteria and fearmongering over Iran’s nuclear program, talk of launching a war that could engulf the region and create an ecological catastrophe is considered matter of fact.
There is still no hard proof that Iran’s nuclear program is designed to produce nuclear arms. Tehran claims its program, the proudest emblem of national modernization, is entirely designed for energy generation as oil reserves are beginning to decline.
U.S. intelligence and UN inspectors report that Iran is not working on nuclear weapons. But given that its neighbors possess such weapons, why wouldn’t it? Even Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, wondered aloud why Iran would not seek such arms. The United States has recently aided India’s nuclear-weapons program.
Israeli Capabilities and Targets
Israel, according to former president Jimmy Carter, has some three hundred nuclear devices in its arsenal, capable of being delivered by medium-ranged ballistic missiles, submarine-launched cruise missiles and aircraft with standoff missiles. Two of Israel’s three German-supplied “Dolphin-class” submarines carrying nuclear-armed missiles are reportedly stationed off Iran’s coast, providing an invulnerable second-strike capability for the Jewish state. Any Iranian nuclear attack on Israel would result in Iran being vaporized.
Still, Israel’s right-wing Likud Party may actually intend to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, just as Israel attacked Iraqi and Syrian nuclear facilities to preserve its Mideast nuclear monopoly. Whipping up a crisis over Iran also serves to deflect attention from the unresolved question of Palestine and from Israel’s growing social and economic problems.
Israel’s potential target list in Iran is clear. At least twelve major nuclear or nuclear-related sites would have to be struck to seriously damage Iran’s nuclear program, some of which is buried deep underground. Leading targets include the aboveground heavy-water/reactor facility at Arak; reactors at Bushehr (a civilian power reactor relying on Russian-supplied fuel), the new underground enrichment facility near Qum at Fordow, the ore conversion plants near Isfahan, and other facilities at Qazvin, Damghan, Tabriz, Lavizan, Chalus, Darkhovin and Parchin.
As threats of as Israeli attack have grown in recent years, Iran has dispersed, hardened and buried its newer nuclear facilities. The new plant at Fordow, for example, is believed to be buried 260 feet under granite. This may be too hard and too deep for even a brace of U.S. monster thirty-thousand-pound MOP bombs to penetrate or crush. Israel has no aircraft that can carry such a huge load, which was designed for the U.S. B-2 stealth bomber.
Curiously, as war fever grips the United States and Israel, few have raised the question of the enormous dangers involved in bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities.
The Repercussions of an Attack
Destroying Iran’s many reactors and processing facilities could release large amounts of radiation and create radioactive dust storms. Winds would carry this toxic miasma over Afghanistan and its large U.S. military garrison. Dangerous radiation would also extend to Pakistan, western India, Iraq, Kuwait and to the Gulf, where large numbers of U.S. military personnel are based. Equally ominous, radioactive dust could blanket oil fields in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. High-altitude winds would spread radioactivity around the globe, as occurred at Chernobyl in the Ukraine, but at a factor of twenty times or more.
Israeli attacks by air and commando units could damage or delay development of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, but the Jewish state lacks the power to permanently destroy it. Israel also fears some of its pilots will be captured and put on show trial. So Israel is straining every sinew to get Washington to do the job. The Pentagon has estimated it will need to strike at least 3,200 targets in Iran, including nuclear facilities, air and naval bases, military production plants, headquarters, communications hubs, missile bases, Gulf ports, and that reliable catchall, “command-and-control facilities.” And this is just in the first wave of strikes.
Air and missile strikes as well as special forces raids would have to continue for weeks, perhaps months. Air wars generate their own “mission creep” as new targets are discovered or old ones moved around. Power stations and high voltage lines, civilian airports, truck plants, radio and TV stations, intelligence headquarters—all will be added to the hit list.
During the first Iraq war, U.S. forces even destroyed many of Iraq’s sewage-treatment and water-purification plants, leading to epidemics of water-borne diseases. Iran could expect the same punitive treatment.
Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was a war hero and highly decorated officer of Iran’s special forces during the Iran-Iraq War. He was credited with many successful missions deep behind Iraqi lines. Iran’s tough special forces will launch ground attacks on U.S. units and bases in Afghanistan, Central Asia, Kuwait and down the Gulf to Oman. Such raids may force the United States to send Marines, then regular ground troops into Iran to forestall attacks.
All wars are unpredictable; a U.S. or Israeli attack on Iran would be particularly so. Iran is a large nation that can take a great deal of punishment: it sustained five hundred thousand dead and wounded in the 1980s invasion by Iraq, which was engineered by the United States and its Arab oil allies. In fact, some Iranian hard-liners have told me they will welcome U.S. ground attacks on their nation.
“America will break its teeth on Iran,” one told me. I heard the same gasconading from Iraqis before the 2003 invasion. But while Iran’s air and naval forces are hopelessly obsolete and would be quickly eliminated, its regular forces, basiji militia and elite units have reasonable power while fighting on the defensive.
Israel, for its part, has been issuing incessant alarms over the existential dangers it faces from Iran, even going so far as to invoke the specter of another Holocaust. Such wildly inflated claims have panicked the world Jewish community and led to war hysteria in North America.
In reality, without nuclear weapons, which it is not believed to possess, Iran has little ability to seriously injure Israel in a war. Iran’s medium-ranged Shahab-3 missiles are inaccurate and carry small warheads. They would likely not be much more effective than Saddam Hussein’s Scuds that were fired at Israel, producing only one fatality—from a heart attack. Israel also has a very effective, multilayered antimissile system built with U.S. aid and linked to U.S. early warning satellites watching Iran. Iran has no air force worth speaking of. The biggest risk Israel faces is an extremely lucky hit by a Shahab missile on its Dimona reactor in the Negev that could release radiation over populated areas.
Iran’s ally in Lebanon, the Hezbollah movement, could shower northern Israel with thousands of unguided artillery rockets. But the last time this happened, during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 2006, Hezbollah fired four thousand rockets at Israel, killing 160 Israelis. Israeli air attacks killed 1,200 Lebanese and Palestinians.
Hezbollah now says that an Israeli attack on Iran will not automatically cause it to launch new waves of short-ranged missiles at Israel. Thanks to generous U.S. help, Israel has also erected an antimissile defense system along its northern border with Lebanon.
So even if Hezbollah joined an Iranian counterattack, Israel’s losses would be tolerable. Attacks on Israeli targets around the world, and perhaps U.S. ones, would be minimal. The alleged Iranian revenge attacks for the murder of Iranian scientists delivered against Israeli diplomats in India, Thailand and Georgia were remarkable for their ineptitude and amateurishness.
The most important result of an Israeli air campaign against Iran would be to draw the United States into a long-running conflict with the Islamic Republic that it neither wants nor can afford. U.S. troops in Afghanistan could even risk being cut off and forced to evacuate by air, leaving much of their matériel behind.
It seems inconceivable that a great world power, the United States, could allow tiny Israel to drag it into a new war in the Muslim world. But this is just what is happening, reminding us of how in 1914 tiny Serbia provoked war between its patron, Russia, and its foe, the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, the best foreign-affairs mind in Washington, called for U.S. warplanes in Iraq to interdict any Israeli air assault across Jordan-Saudi Arabia-Iraq. U.S. aircraft are no longer based in Iraq, but they are close by in Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, and at sea in and around the Gulf. They need only target Israel refueling aircraft to block an air assault.
President Dwight Eisenhower would have threatened such a move without hesitation. But in an election year, the less-than-resolute Barack Obama would most likely shy away from such decisive action. Israel also has the ability to provoke a clash with Iran in the Gulf that could lead to a general war.
We should also recall that the main source of rivalry and tension between Israel and Iran is over creation of a Palestinian state. For America’s interests, forceful diplomacy to resolve this obdurate problem and the possible creation of a nuclear-free zone in the Mideast are the logical answers. President Obama promised as much but lost his resolve in the face of the determined pro-Israel lobby.
The United States has lost its last two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is getting entangled in conflicts in East and West Africa and Yemen. All these wars have been paid for by piling-up debt. Starting war with Iran would be easy. But no one knows what Washington’s war aims would be, how to define victory or how to end war with an enraged, vengeful Iran.
A third major conflict, this time with Iran, would further wreck America’s finances and plunge the republic in an Orwellian state of permanent war.