Military strike on Iran would result in thousands of civilian causalties
No matter how carefully it is planned, any military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities will end up killing hundreds of civilians. Iran has complicated this by locating many of the key facilities near dense population centers.
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It is very difficult to predict the level of Iranian military and civilian casualties, but two points may be made. The first is that, as in Iraq during the first three intense weeks of war, early civilian casualty reports will be incomplete and the full extent of casualties unlikely to come to light for several months. However, any reports of civilian casualties which do emerge would be widely disseminated by the Iranian media and by commercial media networks such as al-Jazeera elsewhere in the region. The second is that any surprise attack will catch many people, be they civilian or military, unawares and unprotected. There will be no opportunity for people to move away from likely target areas as was possible in the days and weeks leading up to the invasion of Iraq.Military deaths in this first wave of attacks against Iran would be expected to be in the thousands, especially with attacks on air bases and Revolutionary Guard facilities. Civilian deaths would be in the many hundreds at least, particularly with the requirement to target technical support for the Iranian nuclear and missile infrastructure, with many of the factories being located in urban areas. If the war evolved into a wider conflict, primarily to pre-empt or counter Iranian responses, then casualties would eventually be much higher.
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The principle of proportionality then requires assessment of the means to accomplish the legitimate objective. Will the cost of achieving that objective in terms of civilian lives lost and destruction of civilian property and the natural environment exceed the value of the objective? As discussed above, bombing will have little value slowing the nuclear research program. Thus, any attack would disproportionately injure the nation's civilian population. Iran's nuclear research centers around seven geographic locations: Tehran, Lashkar Ab'ad, Natanz, Arak, Isfahan, Saghand in the Yazd Province, and Bushehr. Several of these locations are situated in densely populated areas. The "heart" of a potential nuclear arms program apparently involves several sites. Arak, a site "believed to be for the production of heavy water" located about "150 miles southwest of Tehran;" Bushehr, a complex on the Persian Gulf Coast whose first reactor is "nearing completion," and Natanz, "located 100 miles southeast of Tehran," which "will utilize hundreds of gas centrifuges to enrich uranium." Tehran, the capital city, is home to 8,601,473 of the country's 68,688,433 residents. Given the proximity of two of these key sites to this major city, it is difficult to see how even a conventional air attack would not result in significant casualties.
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There is also no guarantee that a potential attack would rely on "conventional" weapons, as in the case of the Osirak. Rather, because Iran is building facilities underground, n107 the use of more powerful weapons could wreak greater devastation on the civilian population. For example, if nuclear arms were used, John Burroughs of the Lawyer's Committee on Nuclear Policy references a Physicians for Social Responsibility [model of] an attack on the underground Isfahan nuclear material storage facility in Iran with a 1.2 megaton (1200 kilotons) B83 bomb modified for earth penetration ... [that] found that over three million people would die within 48 hours ... . While the yield of the bomb used in the PSR study is far bigger than that of a bomb likely to be actually used, it still illustrates that casualties could be very large, as when an attack is in or near an urban center. A nuclear strike now would likely use the existing penetrator bomb, the B-61-11, a modification deployed by the Clinton administration in 1997 with little public debate. It is believed to have a dial-a-yield capability from 300 tons to 300 kilotons. The Hiroshima bomb was around 12 kilotons.
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While these would be the main targets, there might also be attempts to kill elements of the technocratic leadership, especially those experienced technocrats who are responsible for planning and even leading Iran’s nuclear and missile programmes. While some might be based in locations close to the nuclear and missile facilities, such as Natanz, Tabriz and Khorramabad, many would be based in Tehran. It follows that one consequence of the need to target such people as well as factories, research centres and university departments, is that war would come directly to the capital of the country for the first time since the “war of the cities” (the exchange of Scud missile attacks during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s). With many civilian casualties, Iran would have the feel of a country at war, rather than one receiving specific, if substantial, attacks in relatively remote localities. This may be at variance with accepted opinion. In the public mind, there is the idea that a military strike on Iran, like that on Iraq in 1981, would consist primarily of a series of bombing attacks on nuclear infrastructure - it would, in effect, be a “war against military real estate”, the aim being to destroy physical targets such as centrifuge cascades. While these would indeed be hit, at least as important would be the requirement to do as much damage as possible to Iranian attempts to resuscitate a nuclear research and development programme after the attack. It is for this reason that so much attention would be focused on technical personnel, with a determined effort to kill as many such people as possible. Since this would include university facilities and other research centres, the end result would be an attack with a very broad effect.
In contrast, Iran has had years to expand its program and already boasts several large reactors and enrichment facilities, which the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspects, and a host of associated research programs and facilities at which equipment to enrich uranium is studied, manufactured, and assembled. Although the declared facilities tend to be isolated in secure compounds or on military installations, many of the subsidiary facilities are in residential urban neighborhoods. Thus, Kroenig is wrong when he writes that an attack on Iran's nuclear program "could reduce the collateral damage . . . by striking at night or simply leaving those less important plants off its target list." If the United States decides not to target associated sites for humanitarian reasons, Iran could still have a nuclear future.
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Isfahan is one of Iran’s cultural and historic jewels. Indeed, the center of the city, built by the Safavid King Shah Abbas, has been designated as a world heritage site by UNESCO.111 Justifying the decision to protect Isfahan as a World Heritage site, UNESCO cited the site’s authenticity and integrity: “Monuments, buildings and spaces that constitute this complex might individually be losers in a competition with unique world heritage properties, but are unrivaled in the world as an ensemble! Thus it requires to be included as a World Heritage site in order to make rehabilitation policies and programs realized.”112 In addition to the architectural splendor of its city center, there are more than 20,000 historical and cultural sites in Isfahan. An attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would destroy a city and a tradition that have been integral to Iran’s history and heritage for centuries. The city would be covered under a toxic and radioactive shroud that would render it unlivable. The price of such a loss amounts to the stripping away of the Iranian people’s historic, religious, and cultural identity. Instead of opening up Iran to the world so that millions could benefit from the cultural and artistic flowering of Iranian civilization, the Ayatollah’s nuclear gamble threatens to transform Isfahan, one of the marvels of human civilization, into a nuclear and chemical wasteland.
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Although they did not focus on Bushehr as a likely target, in “A Study on a Possible Israeli Strike on Iran’s Nuclear Development Facilities” published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in March 2009, Anthony H. Cordesman and Abdullah Toukan predicted the highest level of environmental damage would come from an attack on the Bushehr Nuclear Plant.143 They estimate the damage from an attack on an operational nuclear facility can cause casualties in the hundreds of thousands. Drawing on Bennett Ramberg’s “Destruction of Nuclear Facilities in War,” they point out that the release of highly radioactive actinide and uranium fuel fission products resulting from the fission process would lead to the release of iodine-131, strontium-90, cesium-137, and activation production material, plutonium-239, all of which are “most damaging to human health” since they attack critical organs such as the lungs, thyroid, bones, tissues, organs, and cells.144 In fact, according to this study, more than 300 radioisotopes can be released into the environment, over 40 of which are produced in abundance and have a significant half-life. These radioactive particles can contaminate the body through clothing and skin, or through wounds. They can be inhaled as dust, or ingested through food and water. Once released, it is very hard to contain their damage as they can have a “physical half-life ranging from eight days to 24,400 years, and a biological half-life ranging from 138 to 500 days.”145 As the CSIS study warns, “Any strike on the Bushehr Nuclear Reactor will cause the immediate death of thousands of people living in or adjacent to the site, and thousands of subsequent cancer deaths or even up to hundreds of thousands depending on the population density along the contamination plume.”146
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Rather than planning a military attack that can have more than 400 aim points, and result in the devastation of Isfahan, it is time to recognize that the Iranian people pose a far greater threat to the Islamic Republic than the U.S. or Israeli military power. While President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu have repeatedly stated that they do not view the Iranian people as the enemies of the United States and Israel, the scale of the casualties resulting from military strikes will allow the Ayatollah, and other extremists, to portray them as aggressors: enemies of Iran, the Islamic world and humanity. It is time to adopt a strategy that recognizes that the Iranian people are the primary victims—not the defenders—of the Ayatollah’s policies. It is they, and not the United States and Israel, who are the hostages of the Islamic Republic’s tyranny and terrorism. Discounting the impact of massive military strikes on their lives and their future is a moral and strategic failure of the highest order.
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Any attack on Iran’s nuclear installation would have as its objective the total destruction of the facilities—reactors, centrifuges, buildings, equipment, warehouses, supplies, and, almost certainly, employees. Strikes on the nuclear plant at Bushehr and Arak (once the reactor is operational) would result in the death of plant workers and emergency first responders, including members of the Revolutionary Guard and soldiers not equipped to handle radiation; severe radiation exposure for clean-up personnel; unprecedented release of radioactive material; the evacuation and relocation of thousands of local residents; the exposure of millions to contamination; the destruction of livestock and food crops; and the loss of agricultural land and water resources. Particularly telling is the fate of populations in cities near the nuclear sites. The residents of Pripyat, a city housing the workers at the Chernobyl plant, were evacuated shortly after the accident. More than 20 years later, Pripyat remains a ghost town. Iranian cities could suffer a similar fate (Figure 11).
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Isfahan will pay a particularly high price for the Ayatollah’s gamble and the gamble of Israeli and/or U.S. strikes. The current volume and lethality of the toxic chemicals produced at the Isfahan facility alone makes it impossible to ignore the unacceptable risks to civilians if some, or all, of this material is stored at this location. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, from 2004 to 2009, the Isfahan Uranium Conversion Facility (UCF) has produced in excess of 371 metric tons (409 US) of uranium hexafluoride which is stored at either Isfahan or Natanz.7 Based on our calculations, if only 5% of 371 metric tons of uranium hexafluoride produced at the Isfahan facility becomes airborne during or after an attack, the toxic plumes could travel 5 miles with the Immediately Dangerous to Life or Health (IDLH) level of 25 milligrams per cubic liter covering a surface area of 13 square miles. With prevailing wind directions and speeds at 9.4 miles/hour moving towards the city, in about one hour, this plume could expose some of the 240,000 residents in Isfahan municipality’s eastern districts, particularly districts 4 and 6. At a 20% release, the IDLH plume will travel 9 miles covering 41 square miles and could expose some of the 352,000 residents, mainly in districts 13, 4, and 6, as well as residents in the region north of district 4. If we assume a conservative casualty rate of 5 to 20 percent among these populations, we can expect casualties in the range of 12,000-70,000 people.