The University of Utah’s Hinckley School of Politics and Omid for Iran conducted an extensive year-long study of the impacts of a western military attack on Iran. Led by Iranian-American environmental engineer Khosrow Semnani, a panel of nuclear engineers, scientists and senior U.S. military officers found:
Pre-emptive military strikes…whether using nuclear or conventional means, would result in devastating human, political, and environmental consequences upon both Iran and the region.
Millions of words have been written about the prospect of an attack on Iran. Almost all of them deal with the political and military ramifications, either pro or con. Almost none present a scientific assessment of the impact such strikes would have on the Iranian people and environment. As the report notes:
The lack of serious discussion about the casualties from military strikes against nuclear installations has not only kept the public in the dark, it has prevented an objective evaluation of unintended consequences of the use of military force.
Such an assault would, of course, cause deaths and serious injuries to thousands of Iranians, but would also have serious impacts not just inside Iran, but for the entire region. The air, soil and water in the vicinity of any sites that are attacked would be poisoned. Much of the land around these cities could, as with Chernobyl, not be farmed for decades, if ever. It would turn large swaths of territory into ghost land. This in turn could produce famine and other substantial forms of privation for those who survive these attacks.
Further, the financial toll would be massive with Iran and other affected countries forced to provide medical care and social services to tens of thousands of victims for decades.
Neither Israel, the U.S., nor Iran have produced any publicly available studies on the subject. In fact, they remain mum for obvious reasons. Publishing the fact that an attack could kill and injure up to 85,000 Iranians might put a serious damper on the war plans of the Netanyahu government. For Iranians, it might cause them to question whether the nuclear sacrifice was worth the potential cost.
The bunker buster bombs used either by the Israelis or U.S. would contain depleted uranium. Their detonation would cause serious exposures to anyone nearby. Plus, the Iranian uranium stockpile (currently estimated by the IAEA at 371 highly-toxic tons) would be a prime target. When hit, this would cause a severe and lethal concatenation regarding radiation exposure.
There would also be the risk of a toxic plume over Isfahan, one of Iran’s most beautiful cities and a UNESCO world heritage site comparable in cultural and architectural significance to Florence or Kyoto. Here is how the report portrayed the damage to that city:
An attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would destroy a city [Isfahan] and a tradition that have been integral to Iran’s history and heritage for centuries. The city would be covered under a toxic and radioactive shroud that would render it unlivable. The price of such a loss amounts to the stripping away of the Iranian people’s historic, religious, and cultural identity…
Isfahan will pay a particularly high price…If we assume a conservative casualty rate of 5 to 20 percent among these [local] populations, we can expect casualties in the range of 12,000-70,000 people.
The study compares the damage to the city to the Union Carbide disaster at Bhopal. A similar gas cloud there turned it into a “gas chamber” that killed up to 15,000 and injured many times more.
Here is the casualty estimate for other likely Iranian targets:
Based on…discussions with Iranian and Western nuclear experts, we have estimated the total number of people—scientists, workers, soldiers and support staff—at Iran’s four nuclear facilities…killed and injured could exceed 10,000.
…However, unlike traditional targets, the risks to civilians extend well beyond those killed from exposure to thermal and blast injuries at the nuclear sites. Tens, and quite possibly, hundreds of thousands of civilians could be exposed to highly toxic chemical plumes and, in the case of operational reactors, radioactive fallout.
An attack on…Isfahan and the Enrichment Plant at Natanz would release existing stocks of fluorine and fluorine compounds which would turn into hydrofluoric acid, a highly reactive agent that, when inhaled, would make people “drown in their lungs,” as one scientist put it.…Once airborne, at lethal concentrations, these toxic plumes could kill virtually all life forms in their path. Depending on the volume of chemicals stored at the facilities, population densities around the sites, and prevailing wind and meteorological conditions, tens of thousands of workers and civilians in Isfahan and…in Natanz could be exposed to toxic plumes. These plumes could destroy their lungs, blind them, severely burn their skin, and damage other tissues and vital organs.
An attack on the Bushehr reactor would:
…Pose a grave environmental and economic threat to civilians in Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. It would not only devastate the important business centers and fishing communities of the Persian Gulf, but also contaminate desalination plants, port facilities and oil fields. To gain an approximate idea of the economic consequences of a strike on Bushehr, one should consider that the government of Belarus has estimated the economic cost of Chernobyl to exceed $200 billion
Beyond the immediate casualties caused by military strikes against Iran, one should assume there would be retaliation not just by Iran, but by its proxy-allies in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt (the Sinai), and Gaza. The chances of a wider regional war are quite likely. In that case, the death toll could be much higher:
Should strikes result in a war, the Iran body count can certainly reach the levels in Iraq, with more than 100,000 dead and millions displaced. The economic costs could also exceed a trillion dollars, many times more than the cost of Iran’s nuclear program. Given that the number of American soldiers killed or injured in the Iraq and Afghan wars exceeds 50,000, one can expect the toll from an Iran war to be much higher—a price advocates of military strikes and solutions fail to recognize.
The report lays out the moral consequences of such an attack for the perpetrators:
[It] would implicate Israeli and American advocates of strikes in a strategic and moral quagmire as perpetrators of man-made nuclear disaster.
…From a strictly legal perspective, the targeting of nuclear power plants such as Bushehr— and the potential death of countless civilians—raises serious concerns in terms of international law, both in terms of humanitarian law and in terms of the doctrine of proportionality. Even in war, such strikes are expressly forbidden under…the Geneva Conventions of 1977…
Pre-emptive military strikes against nuclear power production facilities…amount to the premeditated murder of thousands of civilians, constitute a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions, and can be prosecuted as war crimes.
It’s not entirely beyond the realm of possibility that if the U.S. were to join in such an attack that Pres. Obama would be the first Nobel Peace Prize laureate sought by an international criminal court for crimes against humanity.
Even if the president refuses to take an active role in such an attack, if Israel attacked then we would likely be accessories after the fact. How much less guilty is a nation that doesn’t send its own pilots to perpetrate a Persian version of the Dresden bombing, but provides the aircraft and bombs for another country to do the job?
Regarding Israel’s role in such an assault, there are already voices around the world calling for Israeli accountability for its massive assault on civilians in Gaza in 2009 and Lebanon in 2006. Those voices would become a resounding roar should Israel set loose the dogs of war on Iran.
Khosrow further exhorts international humanitarian bodies to prepare sooner rather than later for such a catastrophe:
…It is incumbent on the United Nations Security Council, International Atomic Energy Agency, the Red Crescent, and other international organizations to address the humanitarian consequences of the bombing of Iran’s nuclear facilities before, rather than after, the event. Beyond Iran, the bombing of nuclear sites establishes a dangerous precedent with profound ramifications not only for the nuclear industry, but also for all nations facing potential conflicts centered on their nuclear programs.
There are also important political considerations that will have ramifications for the immediate adversaries and all the nations of the region:
…Few…have considered the long-term strategic and political consequences of a military decision that is guaranteed to pull generations of American, Iranian, and Israeli youths into a cycle of war as destructive as the decade-long Arab-Israeli wars. At a time when millions across the Middle East, from Iran to Syria, Egypt to Yemen, are breaking out of decades of military rule, war can once again freeze civil society for decades to come.
…Our estimates of the costs and consequences of military strikes provide only a snapshot into what can become a larger, longer, and deadlier regional war with dangerous religious and apocalyptic overtones. The casualties and costs of such a clash of civilizations would have to be measured in terms of millions of people across entire provinces, regions, and continents. As with the shadow cast by the Iran-Iraq war, the Arab-Israeli wars, as well as the Iraq and Afghan conflicts, such a blood feud would feed what one prominent Middle East analyst has called a cycle of “crisis and carnage.”192 Strikes would act as a curse that would stain the memory, scar the face, and blacken the future of generations of civilians and soldiers throughout the Middle East and beyond.
In considering the content of this study it’s important to note that I don’t agree with a number of Semnani’s political views regarding what should happen in Iran. He’s in favor of “replacing” (though he doesn’t say how) Iran’s current regime with a democratically elected government. Much of the world would like to see the current regime fall. But the question is how should this happen. If it falls through popular revolt, that is one thing. If it falls through outside intervention, that’s entirely another.
Semnani raises hackles by calling the use of diplomacy to negotiate with Iran about its nuclear program “a willful act of self-deception.” If he opposes diplomacy then he really only has one arrow left in his quiver, regime change. If that’s the case (and he doesn’t make his views clear on the subject) then he’s placed himself in the odd position of opposing attacking Iran’s nuclear sites, but supporting attacking the regime itself.
He also titles the study The Ayatollah’s Nuclear Gamble. This seems to put the onus on Iran’s leaders as setting in motion what could become a catastrophe for Iran, the region and the world. I see it just the opposite: as Iran “gambling” something that any other country should be entitled to gamble. Nuclear research (though not necessarily a nuclear weapon) is the right of any NPT signatory. So blaming Iran for causing the current imbroglio is entirely misplaced.
There is a certain naiveté among some Iranian exiles about the possibility of overturning the current government. They believe fervently in regime change, but can’t manage to come up with a realistic scenario that would bring this about. It would’ve been far preferable for Semnani to have omitted this from the study as it muddies the waters and distracts from the value of the data he’s amassed concerning the effects of a military strike on Iran.
That being said, Semnani’s political views don’t detract from the hard science he offers in this study.
An Iranian friend tells me that he believes that Semnani may be Bahai, which would explain his special animus toward the regime, which has unleashed murderous oppression against the nation’s Bahais. Semnani’s support for a secular democratic state, unusual for most Iranians, stems from the fact that only such a state would truly protect the rights of ethnic and religious minorities.
Another important contribution this study makes is to lay out the specific armaments either the U.S. or Israel would use against each specific potential Iranian target. Reading about weaponry and the destructive capacity of a 30,000 pound bunker buster munition makes one realize the overall impact that such a massive assault would have on Iran.
I had hoped to publish this piece so that a much wider audience will read it and the study. Unfortunately, those publications I approached didn’t share the urgency I feel about this information. I hope you’ll do whatever you can to spread the word. If Israel or the U.S. want to go to hell in a hand-basket at least we can tell the world what’s in store if they do.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.