Attacking Iran Is Like Setting Off Nuclear Bombs on the Ground

As you can tell by the title, this 61-page paper, The Ayatollah’s Nuclear Gamble, is not Tehran-friendly. The report, released in September, is the product of Khosrow B. Semnani, an Iranian-American industrialist and philanthropist with, according to his bio, “extensive experience in the industrial management of nuclear waste and chemicals.” I’m in the midst of reading it in its entirety.

In the meantime, an excerpt from the executive summary (also available to those non-executives just as time-pressed as executives!) provides a good indication of exactly where Omid for Iran, Semnani’s organization, which released the report along with the Hinckley Institute of Politics and the University of Utah, is coming from.

The best long-term strategy would be a democratic, transparent, and accountable government in Iran. In such a scenario, political leaders would quickly understand that their people want jobs, dignity, opportunity, and political freedoms, not the false promise of nuclear weapons bought at a heavy, even existential, cost. A military strike would not only kill thousands of civilians and expose tens and possibly hundreds of thousands to highly toxic chemicals, it would also have a devastating effect on those who dream of democracy in Iran. Ayatollah Khamenei has proven that he cares little for the Iranian people. It is up to us in the international community, including the Iranian-American diaspora to demonstrate that we do.

Semnani et al state that while (all emphases theirs)

… there has been considerable debate about the timing and targets of military strikes against Iran’s nuclear program, the costs and consequences of such strikes have not received sufficient atten­tion. Military planners at the Pentagon do provide policymakers with estimates of civilian casualties; these estimates are typically for operational purposes and not made available to the general public. Virtually no one has presented a scientific assessment of the conse­quences of military strikes on operational nuclear facilities. What is certain is the gravity of the risk to civilians: The IAEA has verified an inventory of at least 371 metric tons of highly toxic uranium hexafluoride stored at Iran’s nuclear facilities . The release of this material at sites that are only a few miles from major population centers such as Isfahan warrants a thorough and comprehensive assessment of the potential risks to thousands of civilians living in the vicinity of Iran’s nuclear sites.

Nor have Iran’s leaders shown any inclination to present such an assessment.

[They] have had no interest in making the risks of their reckless nuclear policies obvious to its citizens even though the resulting economic toll—inflation, unem­ployment, and the loss of international credit—has devastated the Iranian people. The Iranian military has not provided the Iranian people with any description of potential casualties resulting from attacks on these nuclear facilities. Nor has the parliament encouraged an open assessment of the grave implications of the government’s policies for Iranian scientists, soldiers and civilians working at or living within the vicinity of Iran’s nuclear facilities. This study seeks to address this deficit.

In regards to the Western and IAEA view that Iran is developing nuclear capacity, they write:

While no smoking gun has emerged to prove that Iran is pursuing a weapon. … Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, is making a deadly nuclear gamble .

Whether or not Iran is pursuing a weapon

… the political reality is this: Israel continues to threaten military strikes, should diplomacy fail. In a post-election United States, either a newly re-elected President Barack Obama or an incoming President Mitt Romney will face a ticking clock that will add an element of urgency to their decisions on Iran’s nuclear program. The risks to the Iranian people of military strikes have never been greater.

Holding all parties liable, they write:

By quantifying the costs of military strikes, we have sought to make the scale of the Ayatollah’s reckless gamble and the gamble of possible U.S. and/or Israeli strikes apparent not only to the Iranian people but also to the international community, including policymakers in the United States and Israel.

That the West isn’t contemplating nuclear strikes provides scant solace.

Conventional strikes involving the systematic bombing of nuclear installations can be far more devastating than nuclear and industrial accidents such as Chernobyl, Fukushima, Three Mile Island or Bhopal. The damage from strategic aerial bombardment is planned to be total and irreversible. It leaves no time for intervention, no chance for evacuation and no possibility for containment.

Exactly what do Semnani et al see as the targets?

Beyond the sites, some military planners have suggested that any strike against Iran could extend to more than 400 targets, or “aim points.” The goal of the strikes would be to permanently cripple Iran’s ability to revive its nuclear program by targeting site personnel as well as the auxiliary and support infrastructure.

For the purposes of this study, we have assumed a conservative strike scenario and analyzed the impact of conventional military strike against four targets: Isfahan, Natanz, Arak and Bushehr. … We have not included the deeply buried Fordow site near Qom in our analysis due to the incomplete nature of information about this site. However, it is almost certain that Fordow would be targeted with powerful bunker busters. … We have restricted our estimates of casualties to those injured or killed as a direct result of strikes at the four nuclear facilities and the immediate vicinities only.

What kind of numbers are we talking about?

Based on the best information available as well as 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 to be between 7,000 and 11,000. … 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. … Additionally, the environmental deg­radation due to the spread of airborne uranium compounds, and their entry into water, soil and the food chain would introduce long-term, chronic health risks such as a spike in cancer rates and birth defect

You get the idea. Beyond that, the attack and radiation will work its synergistic black magic in conjunction with Iran’s meager disaster management and emergency preparation capabilities. In other words, bombing Iranian nuclear facilities is like setting off nuclear weapons on the ground.

Semnani et al eloquently summarize (and remember this is just the executive summary):

Rather than dismiss them as collateral damage, it is time to factor the Iranian people into any equation involving military strikes. There is a strong moral, strategic, political and military argument for counting the Iranian people’s interests as a key factor in the nuclear dispute.

Compared to the interests of Jerusalem, Tehran, and Washington, those of the Iranian people come in a distant last.