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What Would Happen if Israel Nuked Iran

A strike on Tehran could kill an estimated 5.6 million and injure 1.6 million.

| Mon May 13, 2013 1:19 PM EDT

The number of fatalities at Hiroshima has been estimated at 140,000. A nuclear attack on Nagasaki three days later is thought to have killed 70,000. Today, according to Dallas, 15-kiloton nuclear weapons of the type used on Japan are referred to by experts as "firecracker nukes" due to their relative weakness.

In addition to killing more than 5.5 million people, a strike on Tehran involving five 250-kiloton weapons—each of them 16 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima—would result in an estimated 803,000 third-degree burn victims, with close to 300,000 others suffering second degree burns, and 750,000 to 880,000 people severely exposed to radiation. "Those people with thermal burns over most of their bodies we can't help," says Dallas. "Most of these people are not going to survive… there is no saving them. They'll be in intense agony." As you move out further from the site of the blast, he says, "it actually gets worse. As the damage decreases, the pain increases, because you're not numb."

In a best case scenario, there would be 1,000 critically injured victims for every surviving doctor but "it will probably be worse," according to Dallas. Whatever remains of Tehran's healthcare system will be inundated with an estimated 1.5 million trauma sufferers. In a feat of understatement, the researchers report that survivors "presenting with combined injuries including either thermal burns or radiation poisoning are unlikely to have favorable outcomes."

Iranian government officials did not respond to a request for information about how Tehran would cope in the event of a nuclear attack. When asked if the US military could provide humanitarian aid to Iran after such a strike, a spokesman for Central Command, whose area of responsibility includes the Middle East, was circumspect. "US Central Command plans for a wide range of contingencies to be prepared to provide options to the Secretary of Defense and the President," he told this reporter. But Frederick Burkle, a senior fellow at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and Harvard University's School of Public Health, as well as a coauthor of the just-published article, is emphatic that the US military could not cope with the scale of the problem. "I must also say that no country or international body is prepared to offer the assistance that would be needed," he told me.

Dallas and his team spent five years working on their study. Their predictions were generated using a declassified version of a software package developed for the Defense Department's Defense Threat Reduction Agency, as well as other complementary software applications. According to Glen Reeves, the software used fails to account for many of the vagaries and irregularities of an urban environment. These, he says, would mitigate some of the harmful effects. Examples would be buildings or cars providing protection from flash burns. He notes, however, that built-up areas can also exacerbate the number of deaths and injuries. Blast effects far weaker than what would be necessary to injure the lungs can, for instance, topple a house. "Your office building can collapse… before your eardrums pop!" notes Reeves.

The new study provides the only available scientific predictions to date about what a nuclear attack in the Middle East might actually mean. Dallas, who was previously the director of the Center for Mass Destruction Defense at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is quick to point out that the study received no US government funding or oversight. "No one wanted this research to happen," he adds.

Rattling Sabers and Nuclear Denial

Frederick Burkle points out that, today, discussions about nuclear weapons in the Middle East almost exclusively center on whether or not Iran will produce an atomic bomb instead of "focusing on ensuring that there are options for them to embrace an alternate sense of security." He warns that the repercussions may be grave. "The longer this goes on the more we empower that singular thinking both within Iran and Israel."

Even if Iran were someday to build several small nuclear weapons, their utility would be limited. After all, analysts note that Israel would be capable of launching a post-attack response which would simply devastate Iran. Right now, Israel is the only nuclear-armed state in the Middle East. Yet a preemptive Israeli nuclear strike against Iran also seems an unlikely prospect to most experts.

"Currently, there is little chance of a true nuclear war between the two nations," according to Paul Carroll of the Ploughshares Fund. Israel, he points out, would be unlikely to use nuclear weapons unless its very survival were at stake. "However, Israel's rhetoric about red lines and the threat of a nuclear Iran are something we need to worry about," he told me recently by email. "A military strike to defeat Iran's nuclear capacity would A) not work B) ensure that Iran WOULD then pursue a bomb (something they have not clearly decided to do yet) and C) risk a regional war."

Cham Dallas sees the threat in even starker terms. "The Iranians and the Israelis are both committed to conflict," he told me. He isn't alone in voicing concern. "What will we do if Israel threatens Tehran with nuclear obliteration?... A nuclear battle in the Middle East, one-sided or not, would be the most destabilizing military event since Pearl Harbor," wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning national security reporter Tim Weiner in a recent op-ed for Bloomberg News. "Our military commanders know a thousand ways in which a war could start between Israel and Iran… No one has ever fought a nuclear war, however. No one knows how to end one."

The Middle East is hardly the only site of potential nuclear catastrophe. Today, according to the Ploughshares Fund, there are an estimated 17,300 nuclear weapons in the world. Russia reportedly has the most with 8,500; North Korea, the fewest with less than 10. Donald Cook, the administrator for defense programs at the US National Nuclear Security Administration, recently confirmed that the United States possesses around 4,700 nuclear warheads. Other nuclear powers include rivals India and Pakistan, which stood on the brink of nuclear war in 2002. (Just this year, Indian government officials warned residents of Kashmir, the divided territory claimed by both nations, to prepare for a possible nuclear war.) Recently, India and nuclear-armed neighbor China, which went to war with each other in the 1960s, again found themselves on the verge of a crisis due to a border dispute in a remote area of the Himalayas.

In a world awash in nuclear weapons, saber-rattling, brinkmanship, erratic behavior, miscalculations, technological errors, or errors in judgment could lead to a nuclear detonation and suffering on an almost unimaginable scale, perhaps nowhere more so than in Iran. "Not only would the immediate impacts be devastating, but the lingering effects and our ability to deal with them would be far more difficult than a 9/11 or earthquake/tsunami event," notes Paul Carroll. Radiation could turn areas of a country into no-go zones; healthcare infrastructure would be crippled or totally destroyed; and depending on climatic conditions and the prevailing winds, whole regions might have their agriculture poisoned. "One large bomb could do this, let alone a handful, say, in a South Asian conflict," he told me.

"I do believe that the longer we have these weapons and the more there are, the greater the chances that we will experience either an intentional attack (state-based or terrorist) or an accident," Carroll wrote in his email. "In many ways, we've been lucky since 1945. There have been some very close calls. But our luck won't hold forever."

Cham Dallas says there is an urgent need to grapple with the prospect of nuclear attacks, not later, but now. "There are going to be other big public health issues in the twenty-first century, but in the first third, this is it. It's a freight train coming down the tracks," he told me. "People don't want to face this. They're in denial."

Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch.com and a fellow at the Nation Institute. An award-winning journalist, his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and regularly at TomDispatch. He is the author most recently of the New York Times bestseller Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (The American Empire Project, Metropolitan Books). You can catch his conversation with Bill Moyers about that book by clicking here. His website is NickTurse.com. You can follow him on Tumblr and on Facebook.

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