Anthony Cordesman, a strategist at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, has estimated the consequences if Tehran gets the bomb and a nuclear exchange with Israel ensues. Based on his just-issued report, "Iran, Israel, and Nuclear War," he expects, writes Martin Walker of United Press International,
some 16 million to 28 million Iranians dead within 21 days, and between 200,000 and 800,000 Israelis dead within the same time frame. The total of deaths beyond 21 days could rise very much higher, depending on civil defense and public health facilities, where Israel has a major advantage.
It is theoretically possible that the Israeli state, economy and organized society might just survive such an almost-mortal blow. Iran would not survive as an organized society. "Iranian recovery is not possible in the normal sense of the term," Cordesman notes. The difference in the death tolls is largely because Israel is believed to have more nuclear weapons of very much higher yield (some of 1 megaton), and Israel is deploying the Arrow advanced anti-missile system in addition to its Patriot batteries. Fewer Iranian weapons would get through.
Anthony Cordesman thinks the unthinkable.
The biggest bomb that Iran is expected to have is 100 kilotons, which can inflict third-degree burns on exposed flesh at 8 miles; Israel's 1-megaton bombs can inflict third-degree burns at 24 miles. Moreover, the radiation fallout from an airburst of such a 1-megaton bomb can kill unsheltered people at up to 80 miles within 18 hours as the radiation plume drifts. (Jordan, by the way, would suffer severe radiation damage from an Iranian strike on Tel Aviv.)
Cordesman assumes that Iran, with less than 30 nuclear warheads in the period after 2010, would aim for the main population centers of Tel Aviv and Haifa, while Israel would have more than 200 warheads and far better delivery systems, including cruise missiles launched from its 3 Dolphin-class submarines.
The assumption is that Israel would be going for Iran's nuclear development centers in Tehran, Natanz, Ardekan, Saghand, Gashin, Bushehr, Aral, Isfahan and Lashkar A'bad. Israel would also likely target the main population centers of Tehran, Tabriz, Qazvin, Isfahan, Shiraz, Yazd, Kerman, Qom, Ahwaz and Kermanshah. Cordesman points out that the city of Tehran, with a population of 15 million in its metropolitan area, is "a topographic basin with mountain reflector. Nearly ideal nuclear killing ground."
Further, Cordesman expects that Israel would need to keep a "reserve strike capability to ensure no other power can capitalize on Iranian strike" and might target "key Arab neighbors"— Syria, Egypt, and the Persian Gulf states in particular.
Israel would have various options, including a limited nuclear strike on the region mainly inhabited by the Alawite minority from which come the ruling Assad dynasty. A full-scale Israeli attack on Syria would kill up to 18 million people within 21 days; Syrian recovery would not be possible. A Syrian attack with all its reputed chemical and biological warfare assets could kill up to 800,000 Israelis, but Israeli society would recover.
An Israeli attack on Egypt would likely strike at the main population centers of Cairo, Alexandria, Damietta, Port Said, Suez, Luxor and Aswan. Cordesman does not give a death toll here, but it would certainly be in the tens of millions. It would also destroy the Suez Canal and almost certainly destroy the Aswan dam, sending monstrous floods down the Nile to sweep away the glowing rubble. It would mean the end of Egypt as a functioning society.
Cordesman also lists the oil wells, refineries and ports along the Gulf that could also be targets in the event of a mass nuclear response by an Israel convinced that it was being dealt a potentially mortal blow. Being contained within the region, such a nuclear exchange might not be Armageddon for the human race; it would certainly be Armageddon for the global economy.
Walker concludes that Cordesman's analysis spells out "the end of Persian civilization, quite probably the end of Egyptian civilization, and the end of the Oil Age. This would also mean the end of globalization and the extraordinary accretions in world trade and growth and prosperity that are hauling hundreds of millions of Chinese and Indians and others out of poverty."
Comments: (1) Cordesman's projections continue the work of private individuals making available to the public what usually is the exclusive domain of intelligence services For another example pertaining to the Iranian nuclear program see the work of Whitney Raas and Austin Long, as summarized by me in "Israeli Jets vs. Iranian Nukes."
(2) If Cordesman's projections are at all accurate, they directly contradict the blithe assumptions of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former Iranian president, who asserted in December 2001, concerning an exchange of nuclear weapons with Israel:
If a day comes when the world of Islam is duly equipped with the arms Israel has in possession, the strategy of colonialism would face a stalemate because application of an atomic bomb would not leave anything in Israel but the same thing would just produce minor damages in the Muslim world.
In other words, Rafsanjani was saying, an exchange would wipe out Israel's smaller population but leave Iran functioning. But Cordesman draws precisely the opposite conclusion. One hopes he is being heard by non-apocalyptic leaders in Tehran.
(3) Again, assuming his analysis is sound, the stakes in an Iran-Israel nuclear exchange are both far higher and of far more universal import (China, India, the global economy?) than usually imagined.
(4) Anyone still in favor of permitting the Iranians, who do have an apocalyptic leadership, to get nuclear weapons? (November 21, 2007)
Apr. 15, 2008 update: Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, Israel's minister for national infrastructure, warned that "Iran will be wiped off the face of the earth if it dares to fire any missile at us."
In response, the Iranian deputy chief of staff, Mohammad Reza Ashtiani, stated that "We are not worried by the recent Israeli maneuvers," but "If Israel wants to take any action against the Islamic republic, we will eliminate Israel from the scene of the universe."
Shaul Mofaz, deputy prime minister of Israel, threatened Tehran.
Shaul Mofaz, deputy prime minister of Israel, threatened Tehran.
June 8, 2008 update: Matan Vilnai, Israel's deputy defence minister criticized Mofaz's "cynical use of central strategic issues for internal political reasons." An unnamed senior defence official commented that "These declarations are irresponsible and do not represent the position of our government. The Iranian nuclear programme is a concern for the entire international community, not only Israel. These declarations work against us because they distract attention from the main issue, which is the threat."
Yesterday, the Islamic Republic of Iran protested Mofaz's remarks to the United Nations Security Council and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon: "The Israeli regime has been emboldened by the Security Council's indifference and... in blatant violation of the principles of the United Nations continues to threaten Iran with force."
Isaac Ben-Israel warns of Israel's possible use of force against Iran.
Isaac Ben-Israel warns of Israel's possible use of force against Iran.
June 29, 2008 update: Major-General Mohammad Jafari, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, has said that Israel "is completely within the range of the Islamic Republic's missiles. Our missile power and capability are such that the Zionist regime – despite all its abilities – cannot confront it." In addition, an editorial in Jomhouri Eslami, a government newspaper, asserted that "Our response will hit right at their temple."
Also today, Shabtai Shavit, 69, the former head of Mossad, warned that Israel has just a year in which to destroy Iran's nuclear programme or risk coming under nuclear attack. "The time that is left to be ready is getting shorter all the time. As an intelligence officer working with the worst-case scenario, I can tell you we should be prepared. We should do whatever necessary on the defensive side, on the offensive side, on the public opinion side for the West, in case sanctions don't work. What's left is a military action." By "worst-case scenario, he meant that Iran may have a nuclear weapon within "somewhere around a year".
July 1, 2008 update: Amotz Asa-El characterizes the response to Mofaz's statement:
Within hours of his unauthorised warning to Teheran, the mullahs, the White House and Wall Street all came after him, the first wagging a finger at the Jewish state, the second begging its leaders to keep their mouths shut, and the third by hiking the price of crude oil nearly 10%.
Nov. 21, 2008 update: Amos Gilad, a retired major general and the head of the Defense Ministry's Diplomatic-Security Bureau, noted in an interview that the "Iranians are determined to obtain nuclear weaponry" and responded: "This is indeed a situation that we can't tolerate. … We cannot accept a nuclear Iran. We cannot be reconciled to it."
Apr. 12, 2009 update: Shimon Peres, the president of Israel, warned today that if Iran's president Mahmoud Admadinejad fails to soften his nuclear stance, "we'll strike him."
July 29, 2009 update: Harsh words now from Iran: Seyed Mohammad Hejazi, who bears the resplendent title of "Lieutenant Commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps Brigadier General," warned that "In the event that the (Zionist) regime makes any mistake, Iran's response would be totally devastating." This follows a comment by the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps commander, General Mohammad Ali Jafari, stating that "Iranian missiles have the capacity to target anywhere in Israel, including its nuclear sites." Further, General Kioumars Heidari, who is the Lieutenant Commander of the Iranian Army Ground Force, warned that "If the leaders of the Quds occupying regime plan to attack our territories, the armed forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran will be fully prepared to confront any act of aggression by those beyond our borders and will give them a decisive response."
Oct. 9, 2009 update: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's representative in the Revolutionary Guard, Mojtaba Zolnour, threatened that "Should a single American or Zionist missile land in our country, before the dust settles, Iranian missiles will blow up the heart of Israel."
Feb. 12, 2010 update: Asked if the Iranian nuclear plants are sufficiently fortified to deter an Israeli attack, the head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization, Ali-Akbar Salehi, told Al-Alam television on February 8 that "all necessary measures" have been taken and then went on the warn the Israelis: "We think that the enemy – especially the Zionist enemy – will not dare take this cowardly step. This could spell the end of Israel."
June 24, 2010 update: Ahmadinejad is intimidating Israel.
They all know that playing with Iran is like playing with a lion. The Zionist regime is too weak to launch aggression against Iran. They long to deal a blow to Iran, but wouldn't dare even think about it.
July 31, 2010 update: Mohammad Khazaee, Tehran's permanent representative to the United Nations, warned: "If the Zionist regime makes the smallest aggression against Iran's soil, we will set fire to Tel Aviv."
Jan. 3, 2011 update: A WikiLeaks cable from the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv quotes Israeli chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi saying on Nov. 15, 2009 that the IDF's anti-missile defense systems can protect all but one million of Israel's seven million population, more-or-less confirming Cordesman's estimate.
Dec. 1, 2011 update: Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Israel Radio: "We don't need unnecessary wars. But we definitely might be put to the test. The non-diplomatic point is a last resort. The fact that all options are on the table is agreed upon by everybody."
Mar. 21, 2013 update: Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamene'i has warned: "Israel's leaders sometimes threaten Iran but they know that if they do a damn thing, the Islamic Republic will raze Tel Aviv and Haifa to the ground."
Apr. 15, 2013 update: Deputy Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces for Logistics and Industrial Research General Mohammad Hejazi has reiterated Khamene'i's warning: "We enjoy the needed level of preparedness to put this statement into action in the shortest time possible if the enemy makes a foolish move."
Apr. 16, 2013 update: IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz told Israel Radio that Israel has the capability to strike Iranian nuclear targets on its own if no country came to its aid. "We will do what is necessary when it is necessary."
Apr. 18, 2013 update: An analysis by Anthony Cordesman from late 2007 got this weblog entry started. He has updated his analysis (with Bryan Gold) in the obscurely titled US-Iranian Competition: The Gulf Military Balance - II The Missile and Nuclear Dimensions, Twelfth Edition – and it is no less stark. Pages 133-81 deal with this issue in considerable detail, including speculations about what damage Iran can do to Israel and vice-versa. Here is the one-sentence summary: "Iran's nuclear and missile programs do pose what many Israelis see as existential‖ risks, although Israel's forces will probably pose a greater existential threat to Iran through 2020."
Aug. 2, 2013 update: Ahmad Khatami, the Tehran Friday prayer leader, warned Israel that Iran possesses missiles with a 2,500 km range and "If the Zionist regime wants to attack Iran [even] in the most minimal fashion, we will destroy Tel Aviv and Haifa. We fear no one."