Print        

Pre-emptive War with Iran and the Proverbial 800 Pound Gorilla

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Mahmoud Omidsalar
John F. Kennedy Memorial Library, California State University, Los Angeles

Speculations about air strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities have become routine in the western media.  Presumably, these facilities will be targeted in an attack by the Israelis or by a joint Israeli-American taskforce as though enemy aircraft can fly into Iranian airspace unopposed.  Most of these speculations leave out several important points. The first is that any attack on Iranian enrichment facilities would amount to attacking Iran with a “dirty bomb,” that is, with a “radiological weapon” that combines the explosive charge of the bunker-buster ordinance with the radioactive material contained in the targeted facilities.  Numerous official and semi-official western studies agree that such an attack would release massive amounts of highly radioactive elements into the region’s environment, and would cause “hundreds of thousands” of short-term and long-term casualties as a result of exposure to nuclear radiation.  The Union of Concerned Scientists, which utilized a model developed by the Pentagon, states that following an attack on the Natanz facility near Isfahan, some 3,000,000 civilians will perish in the first couple of weeks, and in the weeks to follow, the prevailing winds will carry the radiation to some 35 million others in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.(see video, See also).

The adverse political effects of such an event hardly need explanation.  This brings me to another neglected point.  The Range of options that are open to Iran in case of a radiological attack is not adequately considered.  It is true that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon.  But it is also true that Iran does have the capability to build a “dirty bomb” if she is ever attacked by one.  The moment the country is attacked by a “radiological weapon,” a red line would have been crossed.  No one who knows anything about Iran’s history and culture believes that the Iranian armed forces are going to sit back and take it all on the chin.  According to the IAEA, Iran possesses thousands of tons of Uranium hexafluoride (called “hex” in the nuclear industry).  This is a highly toxic substance that forms grey crystals at standard temperature and pressure, is highly corrosive to most metals, and reacts violently with water (see Wikipedia: Uranium hexafluoride).  If Iran is attacked by “dirty bombs” Iranians have the option of returning the favour by striking back with “dirty bombs” of their own.  In other words, any attack on Iranian nuclear installations would be matched by a devastating attack upon Israel and her allies in the region, all of whom are well within reach of Iranian drones and missiles.  A missile, armed with a radiological warhead, even if intercepted in the air, would be as destructive as one that lands. 

Missile defence against such weapons would be meaningless because they devastate regardless of whether they land or are shot down.  It would be a fatal error to think that Iran is helpless in the face of radiological aggression.  Once that threshold is crossed, all calculations will change and all reasons for restraint will be eliminated.  This may be the message of statements like, “attacking Iran will be Israel’s last mistake” (General Vahidi, Iran’s Defence Minster).  In view of these facts, Ehud Barak’s suggestion that in case of war with Iran, the Israeli casualties would be no more than 500 may prove to be catastrophically wrong.  Therefore, a sensible advice to the Israelis might be: Don’t wander into a wilderness out of which you may not emerge!

Regardless of the bravado of the Israeli hawks and their cheerleaders in the AIPAC, who routinely underestimate Iran’s retaliatory capabilities, Iran and Israel have already reached a balance of terror.  What governs the existing balance of power between Iran and Israel is what governed the military balance between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, i.e., the principle of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).  Iran does not have the nuclear warheads that Israelis possesses. However, Iran does have the ability to deliver the same type of nuclear devastation upon Israel that the Israelis and their allies propose to unleash upon Iran and her neighbours.

Another topic that routinely comes up in the western punditocracy’s speculations about “war with Iran” is whether the Iranians will close the Strait of Hormuz.  It is true that Iranian military and political leaders have pointed to the possibility as an option.  However, if the idea is to deny oil to the western allies of Israel, the easier move would be to bomb all Arab oil installations, most of which are vulnerable to Iranian attack and sabotage.  According to Robert Baer, who served as a CIA operative in the Middle East for more than two decades, the Arab side of the Persian Gulf is a target-rich environment because of its many oil facilities.  Even a moderately successful attack on the Abqaiq facility in Saudi Arabia, a scenario considered by the Reagan-era disaster planners, would take millions of barrels of oil out of circulation and cause such severe damage that could not be easily or quickly repaired (See his Sleeping with the Devil, pp.xv-xxix).  If Iran aims to deny oil to the world, she can do it better by taking out the Arab oil facilities rather than by closing the Strait of Hormuz, which would choke off her own outlet. 

But for the American 5th Fleet, Saudi Arabia, the Arab Sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf and their oil installations are practically defenceless in war with the battle-hardened Iranian army.  The Saudis may have developed an exaggerated notion of their military might, but the fact remains that their army has never fought a war.  Indeed, the Saudi soldiers threw down their weapons and ran during their last engagement in the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War (The Devil We Know, 2008, p.137).  Having a lot of fancy hardware is not the same thing as having the ability or the stomach for a fight.  The implication of all this is that the distance of the United States and her allies from Iran does not necessarily increase their strategic depth in war with Iran.  Significant parts of their energy infrastructure, i.e., the Arab oil installations, are exposed to attack.  The West cannot rely on her Arab allies in the Persian Gulf because the majority of these are no more than familial entities and a hodgepodge of tribes masquerading as countries rather than historically evolved states. 

Furthermore, unlike Iran, which has a secular myth in her national epic, The Book of Kings (composed circa 1000 A.D.), and a long political history to sustain her, these sheikhdoms are not designed to survive sustained political stress and may be easily destabilized.  All of these options would be open to Iran if the country is pushed into a corner and forced to fight with her back to the wall. 

A pre-emptive radiological attack on Iran would have another casualty on the Israeli side: namely, Israel’s “special relationship” with the U.S.  Iranian leaders have repeatedly stated that if attacked, the Iranian armed forces will react by assaulting the fifth fleet with thousands of manned and unmanned speedboats and other lethal vehicles, and will also target all U.S. bases in the region by its missiles.  There will inevitably be U.S. casualties, some resulting from the radiation contamination generated by the bombing of Iran’s nuclear facilities in the first place.  It is not unreasonable to assume that in time, various illnesses and birth defects that are normally associated with exposure to radiation will take their political toll.  Before long, the war-weary population of the United States would question if the U.S. should have suffered all the carnage in yet another unnecessary war provoked by the Israelis and their American lobby. 

Therefore, the question that the AIPAC and the Israeli strategists might want to contemplate is: “how many twenty-somethings with radiation sickness would it take to end the cherished special relationship between the U.S. and Israel?”  Is it worth risking the loss of the vastly preferable existing balance of power by advocating a pre-emptive war on the bogus grounds that Iran presents an existential threat to Israel?  The existential threat to Israel does not come from the Iranian military; it comes from Israelis’ own chutzpah. 

No matter from which angle one views the problem of rushing into a military confrontation with Iran, the outcomes appear horrifying.  The potential disasters associated with pursuing non-diplomatic solutions are too numerous and too dangerous to risk.

*Mahmoud Omidsalar obtained his Ph.D. in Persian Literature from the University of California, Berkeley in 1984, and joined the Encyclopaedia Iranica as a consulting editor in 1990.  He was appointed to the Supreme Council of the Center for the Great Islamic Encyclopedia (Tehran) In 2006.  Together with the late Iraj Afshar, he edited the series Folia Medica Iranica and Persian Manuscripts in Facsimile.  His most recent English books are: Poetics and Politics of Iran’s National Epic, the Shāhnāmeh (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), and Iran’s Epic and America’s Empire: A Handbook for a Generation in Limbo (Santa Monica: Afshar Publishing, 2012).

طراحی و توسعه آگاه‌سیستم