Washington, DC – A new report finds that as many as 85,000 people in Iran would would be killed as a result of military strikes against nuclear facilities in the country, according to what the author says is a “conservative estimate.”
The report, “The Ayatollah’s Nuclear Gamble,”examines the specific human and environmental costs of a potential military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Its author, Khosrow B. Semnani, presented the reports findings at an Atlantic Council event in Washington last week.
Semnani noted that, unlike nuclear facilities in Iraq and Syria that were struck by Israel, Iranian nuclear facilities are “hot sites,” meaning they are operational. “They’ve got people there, they’ve got equipment there, they’ve got chemicals there, they’ve got people living around it.” Comparing a potential attack on Iranian nuclear sites to the 1981 strike on the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq, Semnani said, is “a complete misconception because Osirak was not a hot site.” He continued, “the analogy of Osirak and [an] Iranian site is absolutely a fantasy – you cannot go there.”
To further illustrate this point, Semnani referred to the highly populated Iranian city of Esfahan, located just 10 miles away from a nuclear facility. In addition to predictable chemical and radioactive effects that could result from an attack on the facility, including such maladies as cancer and birth defects, Semnani points to still further complications, including the potential contamination of the city’s water system. “If it gets into the water system, which supplies 29% of the total drinking water in Iran, if that becomes contaminated, that’s a catastrophe of its own scale and that needs to be looked at.”
Also presenting was the Wilson Center’s Robert Litwak, who called Semnani’s work “an important, neglected dimension of the debate about a response to Iran’s nuclear challenge. He stressed “three potential liabilities” regarding the use of force against Iran: “First, it would at best set back, but not end the program. Second, it could well generate the nationalist backlash within Iran with the perverse consequences of bolstering the regime. […] And third, a ‘limited attack’ on Iran could well escalate into a regional war.”
Litwak offered support for his position against military action by noting that the “depiction of Iran as an irrational state runs contrary to US national intelligence estimates that have characterized the clerical regime’s decision-making as guided by a cost-benefit approach.” Citing the conclusion by US intelligence that Iran has not yet made the decision to build a nuclear weapon, Litwak argued, “if you look at cases in which countries have decided to go nuclear – develop nuclear programs – it’s an important state decision, it’s non-trivial, and states that have done so, have done so usually for what they perceive to be a security imperative, some type of existential threat.” […] “Iran isn’t in that type of situation right now. This is not a crash program to get a weapon as quickly as possible. And as such, Iran may well stay at this stage of a hedge of going so far, but no further.”
Litwak also echoed Semnani on the important distinction that Iranian nuclear sites are fully operational. “The two uses of force against nuclear sites in the Middle East,” namely Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007, “are not relevant precedents for this consideration because they were, with reason, undertaken before the sites became operational.” But in the case of Iran’s fully operational sites, he said, “there are no precedents for military strikes on these kind of hot, active sites.” Litwak also noted that, historically, the US has severely limited the use of force when dealing with proliferation issues.
Semnani said he was motivated to write the report because of the lack of critical analysis regarding the non-political implications of an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. “When you take to account the implication of this material being bombed and released out of the pressurized capsules…they exist in, and put in the atmosphere, the implications are horrifying,” Semnani observed. “I said ‘why isn’t anybody talking about this?’”
“I’m not trying to paint [an] ugly picture,” Semnani summed up. “I’m not trying to. It is an ugly picture. And people need to know that.”