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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Nuclear War in Middle East: Counting the Dead

Anthony Cordesman may be the most influential man in Washington that most people have never heard of. A former director of intelligence assessment for the secretary of defense and director of policy and planning in the Department of Energy, he is now the top strategic guru at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

Most serious politicians and journalists have for some years based their analyses of the Iraq war and its aftermath on his universally respected research. Cordesman is a facts man who likes and reveres good data and cool, clinical analysis as the keystones of policymaking.

He has now turned his laser-like research and forensic intelligence skills to studying the real implication of the endless diplomatic minuet at the United Nations over Iran's nuclear ambitions. In the real world, this matters mainly because an Iranian nuclear capability would transform the power balance in the wider Middle East, and leave the region and the rest of us living under the constant prospect of a nuclear exchange between Iran and Israel.

This would mean, Cordesman suggests, 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.

The difference in yield matters. 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.)

Read it all here.

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