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Op-Ed: Waiting for the Apocalypse?

The consequences of a possible Iranian nuclear attack upon Israel are almost too awful to contemplate, but cannot be pushed under the rug.
Published: Tuesday, November 06, 2012 3:58 PM


After too many years of delay and self-delusion concerning Tehran's atomic intentions and capabilities, a militarily nuclear Iran is now pretty much a fait accompli.

For a distinctly identifiable period of time, selective preemptions against certain Iranian nuclear assets and corollary infrastructures could have made strategic sense. Now, for Israel, the country most directly threatened by these portentous enemy developments, self-defense options will be limited to mostly reactive counter-measures. Above all, this means fashioning critically improved nuclear deterrence, and also conspicuously-expanding programs for ballistic-missile defense.

Although never discussed publicly, these remaining options will likely announce an end to Israel's longstanding policy of "deliberate nuclear ambiguity," or the so-called "bomb in the basement." Included, too, will be substantial engineering improvements to the Arrow, Iron Dome, and (later) Magic Wand missile interceptors. There will also be parallel and reinforcing efforts aimed very specifically at enhanced national plans for intelligence, counterintelligence, and cyber-defense. In military parlance, because these plans will be intersecting and inter-penetrating, or "synergistic," they will represent powerful "force multipliers."

A successful and timely preemption might once have prevented a nuclear Iran. Similarly, Israel's defensive anti-missile programs could become useful as an important adjunct to nuclear deterrence. This would come about because the rationality of any contemplated Iranian attack upon Israel could be affected by Israel's deployed hard-target protections. In essence, with capable Israeli ballistic missile defenses in place, Teheran could require a steadily increasing number of offensive missiles just to ensure its necessary penetration capacity.

It is true, of course, that Israel's active defenses could also provide certain limited protections for civilian populations or "soft" targets, but any such post-attack benefits would be far less important than those gains associated with improved nuclear deterrence.

Whether rational, irrational, or "mad" - and there are genuinely vital differences between these three decisional possibilities - any nuclear-capable Iranian leadership that inclines toward military conflict with the "Zionist Entity" could initiate a regional nuclear war. Deliberately or inadvertently, as a "bolt from the blue," or as an unintended result of escalation, whether out of some inexorable religious commitment to Jihad against "unbelievers," or, as a calamitous consequence of much more mundane causes (for example, miscalculation, accident, coup d'état, or command-control failure), a nuclear Tehran could ignite a thoroughly Dantesque excursion into fire, into the eternal darkness, into ice.

More than thirty-three years ago, I published the first of ten books that contained authoritative descriptions of the physical and medical consequences of nuclear war, any nuclear war. These descriptions were drawn largely from a still-valid 1975 report by the National Academy of Sciences, and included the following very tangible outcomes: large temperature changes; contamination of food and water; disease epidemics in crops, domesticated animals, and humans due to ionizing radiation; shortening of growing seasons; irreversible injuries to aquatic species; widespread and long-term cancers due to inhalation of plutonium particles; radiation-induced abnormalities in persons in utero at the time of detonations; a vast growth in the number of skin cancers, and increasing genetic disease.

Overwhelming health problems would afflict the survivors of any Iranian nuclear attack upon Israel. These difficulties would extend beyond prompt burn injuries. Retinal burns could even occur in the eyes of persons very far from the actual explosions.

Tens of thousands of Israelis could be crushed by collapsing buildings, and torn to shreds by flying glass. Others could fall victim to raging firestorms. Fallout injuries would include whole-body radiation injury, produced by penetrating, hard gamma radiations; superficial radiation burns produced by soft radiations; and injuries produced by deposits of radioactive substances within the body.

After an Iranian nuclear attack, even a "small" one, those few medical facilities that might still exist in Israel could be taxed beyond capacity. Water supplies could quickly become unusable. Housing and shelter could be unavailable for hundreds of thousands of survivors. Transportation would break down to rudimentary levels. Food shortages could be critical and long-term.

Israel's normally complex network of exchange systems would be shattered. Virtually everyone would be deprived of the most basic means of livelihood. Emergency police and fire services would be decimated. All systems dependent upon electrical power could stop functioning. Severe trauma would occasion widespread disorientation and psychiatric disorders for which there would likely be no therapeutic services.

Normal human society would cease. The pestilence of unrestrained murder and banditry could quickly augment plague and epidemics. Many of the survivors would expect an increase in serious degenerative diseases. They could also expect premature death; impaired vision, and sterility. An increased incidence of leukemia and cancers of the lung, stomach, breast, ovary and uterine cervix would be unavoidable.

Extensive fallout could upset many delicately balanced relationships in nature. Israelis who survive the nuclear attack might have to deal with enlarged insect populations. Like the locusts of biblical times, mushrooming insect hordes could spread en masse from the radiation-damaged areas, in which they arose.

Insects are generally more resistant to radiation than humans. This fact, coupled with the prevalence of unburied corpses, uncontrolled waste and untreated sewage, would generate tens of trillions of flies and mosquitoes. Breeding in the dead bodies, these insects could make it impossible to control typhus, malaria, dengue fever and encephalitis. Throughout Israel, tens or even hundreds of thousands of rotting human corpses would pose the largest immediate and longer-term health threat.

Assuredly, all of these same effects, possibly even more expansive and destructive, would be unleashed upon Iran. This is because an immediate and massive Israeli retaliation for any Iranian nuclear aggression would be a certainty. Still, Iran's comparatively greater suffering could offer little meaningful solace for Israel. Moreover, in purely strategic terms, this greater enemy suffering would be irrelevant.

Nuclear war is like any other incurable disease. For Israel, the only effective remaining strategy must lie in prevention. Barring any unlikely eleventh-hour preemptions against Iran - protective first-strikes that would be known as anticipatory self-defense under formal international law - Israel will have to turn for its ultimate survival to a well-reasoned core strategy of improved anti-missile interceptions and enhanced nuclear deterrence.

Any constituent failures in such an existentially indispensable strategy could produce utterly unprecedented levels of societal dislocation and human suffering.

LOUIS RENÉ BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is Professor of International Law at Purdue. Born in Zürich, Switzerland, on August 31, 1945, he is author of several of the earliest major books on nuclear strategy and nuclear war, including TERRORISM AND GLOBAL SECURITY: THE NUCLEAR THREAT (Westview, 1979); APOCALYPSE: NUCLEAR CATASTROPHE IN WORLD POLITICS (The University of Chicago Press, 1980); PEOPLE, STATES AND WORLD ORDER (F. E. Peacock, 1981); MIMICKING SISYPHUS: AMERICA'S COUNTERVAILING NUCLEAR STRATEGY (D.C. Heath, Lexington Books, 1983); and SECURITY OR ARMAGEDDON: ISRAEL’S NUCLEAR STRATEGY (D.C. Heath, Lexington Books, 1986). Dr. Beres was Chair of Project Daniel, a private group that delivered an early report on a nuclearizing Iran (ISRAEL'S STRATEGIC FUTURE) to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, on January 16, 2003. Some of his articles on these issues have appeared in World Politics (Princeton); Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs; International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; Special Warfare (DoD); Parameters: The Journal of the U.S. Army War College (DoD); NATIV (Israel/Hebrew); and International Security (Harvard).