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Nick Turse: Israel, Iran, and the Nuclear Freight Train

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

 

Has a weapon ever been invented, no matter how terrible, and not used?  The crossbow, the dreadnought, poison gas, the tank, the landmine, chemical weapons, napalm, the B-29, the drone: all had their day and for some that day remains now.  Even the most terrible weapon of all, the atomic bomb, that city-buster, that potential civilization-destroyer, was used as soon as it was available.  Depending on your historical interpretation, it was either responsible for ending World War II in the Pacific or rushed into action before that war could end.  In either case, it launched the atomic age.

During the Cold War, the two superpowers, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, relied on a strategy that used to be termed, without irony, "mutual assured destruction" or MAD.  Its intent was simple enough: to hold off a planetary holocaust by threatening to commit one.  With their massive nuclear arsenals, those two imperial states held each other and everyone else on the planet hostage.  Each safely secured more than enough nukes to be able to absorb a "first strike" that would devastate its territory, leaving possibly tens of millions of its citizens dead or wounded, and still return the (dis)favor.

After the Soviet Union disappeared in 1991, nuclear weapons did, too -- without going away. The American and Russian arsenals, and the nuclear geography that underlay them, remained in place, just largely unremarked upon.  In the meantime, the weaponry itself spread.  In those years, the last superpower, which seldom discussed its own arsenal, selectively focused its energies on containing the spread of nuclear weaponry in three nations: the first was Pakistan some part of whose ever-growing nuclear arsenal it feared might fall into the hands of extreme Islamic fundamentalists in a land Washington was in the process of destabilizing via a war in neighboring Afghanistan and a CIA drone campaign in its tribal borderlands; the second was North Korea, a country encouraged in its quest for nuclear weapons by watching the U.S. take down two autocrats, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi, who gave up their nuclear programs prior to U.S. interventions; and the third was Iran, which had a nuclear program (started by the U.S. in an era when the country was considered our bulwark in the Persian Gulf), but as far as anyone knows no plans to weaponize it.  In the meantime, Washington (and so the American media) simply ignored the very existence of Israel's massive nuclear arsenal and actually aided the further development of the Indian nuclear program.  In these years, it also threatened or, in the case of Iraq, a country that no longer had a nuclear program, actually launched what Jonathan Schell has called "disarmament wars."

That the spread of nuclear weapons, whatever the country, is a danger to us all is obvious.  Who exactly will use such weapons next and where remains unknown.  But there is no reason to believe that, sooner or later, nuclear weapons -- which have now spread to nine countries -- and are likely to spread further, will not be used again.

Recently, a Texas-based nonprofit got a lot of publicity by announcing that it had fired the first handgun ever made almost totally by a 3-D printer.  This act, modest enough in itself, nonetheless highlights a trend of our time.  Weaponry that once only a large state, mobilizing scientists, industrial power, and resources could produce can now be made by ever-smaller states -- say North Korea with limited resources and a malnourished populace.  Similarly, weapons once made by large companies can now be assembled by individuals.  Or put another way, ever more powerful weaponry is increasingly available to ever less powerful states and even non-state actors.  It was, for instance, the Aum Shinrikyo cult that, in 1995, produced sarin nerve gas -- "the poor man's atomic bomb" -- in its own laboratory and used it in the Tokyo subways, killing 13, just as in the U.S. anthrax began arriving in the mail a week after 9/11, killing five people.

We don't know where or why a nuclear weapon will be used.  We don't know whether it will be a North Korean, South Korean, Indian, Pakistani, Lebanese, Iranian, Israeli, or even American city that will be hit. All we should assume is that, as long as such weapons are developed, amassed, and stored for use, one day they will be used with consequences that, as Nick Turse, author of the bestselling Kill Anything That Moves, reports today, are -- even for those who have studied the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- beyond imagining. Tom

Nuclear Terror in the Middle East
Lethality Beyond the Pale
By Nick Turse

In those first minutes, they'll be stunned. Eyes fixed in a thousand-yard stare, nerve endings numbed. They'll just stand there. Soon, you'll notice that they are holding their arms out at a 45-degree angle. Your eyes will be drawn to their hands and you'll think you mind is playing tricks. But it won't be. Their fingers will start to resemble stalactites, seeming to melt toward the ground. And it won't be long until the screaming begins. Shrieking. Moaning. Tens of thousands of victims at once. They'll be standing amid a sea of shattered concrete and glass, a wasteland punctuated by the shells of buildings, orphaned walls, stairways leading nowhere.

This could be Tehran, or what's left of it, just after an Israeli nuclear strike.

Iranian cities -- owing to geography, climate, building construction, and population densities -- are particularly vulnerable to nuclear attack, according to a new study, "Nuclear War Between Israel and Iran: Lethality Beyond the Pale," published in the journal Conflict & Health by researchers from the University of Georgia and Harvard University. It is the first publicly released scientific assessment of what a nuclear attack in the Middle East might actually mean for people in the region.

Its scenarios are staggering.  An Israeli attack on the Iranian capital of Tehran using five 500-kiloton weapons would, the study estimates, kill seven million people -- 86% of the population -- and leave close to 800,000 wounded.  A strike with five 250-kiloton weapons would kill an estimated 5.6 million and injure 1.6 million, according to predictions made using an advanced software package designed to calculate mass casualties from a nuclear detonation.

Estimates of the civilian toll in other Iranian cities are even more horrendous.  A nuclear assault on the city of Arak, the site of a heavy water plant central to Iran's nuclear program, would potentially kill 93% of its 424,000 residents.  Three 100-kiloton nuclear weapons hitting the Persian Gulf port of Bandar Abbas would slaughter an estimated 94% of its 468,000 citizens, leaving just 1% of the population uninjured.  A multi-weapon strike on Kermanshah, a Kurdish city with a population of 752,000, would result in an almost unfathomable 99.9% casualty rate. 

Cham Dallas, the director of the Institute for Health Management and Mass Destruction Defense at the University of Georgia and lead author of the study, says that the projections are the most catastrophic he's seen in more than 30 years analyzing weapons of mass destruction and their potential effects.  "The fatality rates are the highest of any nuke simulation I've ever done," he told me by phone from the nuclear disaster zone in Fukushima, Japan, where he was doing research.  "It's the perfect storm for high fatality rates."

Israel has never confirmed or denied possessing nuclear weapons, but is widely known to have up to several hundred nuclear warheads in its arsenal.  Iran has no nuclear weapons and its leaders claim that its nuclear program is for peaceful civilian purposes only.  Published reports suggest that American intelligence agencies and Israel's intelligence service are in agreement: Iran suspended its nuclear weapons development program in 2003. 

Dallas and his colleagues nonetheless ran simulations for potential Iranian nuclear strikes on the Israeli cities of Beer Sheva, Haifa, and Tel Aviv using much smaller 15-kiloton weapons, similar in strength to those dropped by the United States on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.  Their analyses suggest that, in Beer Shiva, half of the population of 209,000 would be killed and one-sixth injured.  Haifa would see similar casualty ratios, including 40,000 trauma victims.  A strike on Tel Aviv with two 15-kiloton weapons would potentially slaughter 17% of the population -- nearly 230,000 people.  Close to 150,000 residents would likely be injured. 

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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