Dec 8, 2013
Nuclear Terror in the Middle East
Posted on May 14, 2013
By Nick Turse, TomDispatch
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 U.S. 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.”
“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 U.S. 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.”
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