Costs of War on Iran: A Systematic Disregard for Human Life

John Glaser, October 04, 2012

There is something of a consensus forming around the conclusion that a preventive US and/or Israeli attack on Iran (for a nuclear weapons program it doesn’t have) is the wrong thing to do. Last night former Defense Secretary Robert Gates spoke at an event warning “the results of an American or Israeli military strike on Iran could, in my view, prove catastrophic.” He said “such an attack would make a nuclear-armed Iran inevitable,” disrupt world oil traffic in the Persian Gulf, and prompt a wave of terrorism across the region, “haunting us for generations in that part of the world.”

It’s notable enough that a veteran of the Washington military and intelligence establishment like Gates speaks this publicly and vociferously against a war on Iran. But he’s not alone. A report released last month by former government officials, national security experts and retired military officers concluded also that an attack would motivate Iran to restart its weapons development, and that the ensuing war would end up being “more taxing than the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.”

The Obama administration too – terrible as their economic sanctions and militaristic postures are towards Iran – has been adamantly against going to war, at least right now. America’s top military official, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey, reiterated last month that the US would not be “complicit” in an Israeli strike, which he also explained would be counterproductive. Israeli press reports came out around the same time claiming the Obama administration sent a surreptitious message to Iran promising not to back an Israeli strike, as long as Tehran refrains from attacking American assets in the Persian Gulf.

Even leading figures in Washington who reliably monger for war and regime change in the Middle East, have quieted their battle trumpets as of late, subdued from the fever pitch they reached a matter of months ago. It is clear that the tactical, strategic, and financial costs of a discretionary war on Iran have turned the tide against war (again, at least for now).

In all of the massive commentary in establishment foreign policy circles that has come out on the Iran issue as of late, however, very little focuses on the immense human costs a war on Iran would entail. According to a new report that tries to estimate this, the number of immediate casualties that would result from bombing Iran’s top four enrichment sites would be would be about 5,000 people. “If the bombing would include more than those four sites,” says the study from the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, “then the immediate casualty would be up to 10,000 people.”

What about casualties that are not immediate? Even if a US or Israeli strike only targeted Iran’s nuclear sites and it didn’t result in larger land war (unlikely), the toxic plumes released as a result of the strikes could kill or injure up to 70,000 civilians in nearby cities and towns. “People’s  skin could be burnt, they could become blind, their lungs could be destroyed, their kidneys could be damaged, and in the future they could face other health problems such as skin cancer and [other forms] of cancer,” according to the author of the report.

According to a 2009 study by the Center for International and Strategic Studies “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.” Even civilians in neighboring countries would be effected: “Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates will be heavily affected by the radionuclides.”

The casualty estimates go much higher when the aftermath, or retaliation, to the aggressors’ strikes is taken into consideration. A declassified war simulation run by the Pentagon earlier this year forecasted that the “wider regional war” and Iranian retaliation that would likely result from an attack would immediately get at least 200 Americans deployed in the region killed. The RAND Corp. thinks that Iran would also turn to unconventional military tactics – they call it “terrorism” – in response, which would put even more innocent lives at risk. Almost every official estimate – and common sense, considering America’s recent experiences in Iraq – concludes that an all out war in Iran would result in a strong insurgency and possible a descent into civil war, which has the potential to kill hundreds of thousands.

This has not been a commonly cited reason for avoiding an unnecessary war with Iran. It’s encouraging that so much of official Washington is decidedly against war for the tactical and strategic costs, but these human costs are systematically overlooked in the vast majority of the analysis. It’s what John Tirman, professor at MIT, calls “collective autism” about the costs of war. Americans who are either supportive or ambivalent about war on Iran – or for that matter Iraq, Afghanistan, and beyond – are like all people suffering from the delusions of nationalism. When it’s the other guy being bludgeoned, they can’t summon the regard they’d have for hundreds of thousands of Americans being killed because an international bully attacked us without provocation.

  • Hamid

    Strange! Mr. Gates is parrotting the Commander of the Iran Revolutionary Guards Corps. Good job Commander Jaffari for convincing cowards and spineless "realists" like Robert Gates, that you are so strong and mighty to dictate not only to your people and suppress and brutalize them but also dictate to the world how things should be. I guess its up to the brave and free to stand up and show you for what you really are: a coward who hides behind your guns and spouts macho bravado but runs in the face of resistance. The Iranian people will deal with you and your dasterdly regime, if only the likes of AntiWar and other foul post-colonialists stop whinning about your rights instead of the rights of the Iranian people who have risen up against you. If only these naiive and perverse fools stop throwing up a smokescreen for the Iranian regime and fooling their naiive followers that the threat is from those who oppose this regime rather than this regime itself and its evil worldview.

    • Jack

      I bet your family either has connects with Monarchs or MKO… you are not an Iranian if you want outsiders to attack your Mother Land. Hamid Iranians are smart and they do NOT WANT YOU back in Iran. Just stay in US and enjoy your life under Uncle Sam!

      • Yonatan

        Maybe he is an MEK stooge

  • @richardhack

    "He said “such an attack would make a nuclear-armed Iran inevitable,"

    Once again…no. Iran knows it could not deter a US attack with nukes, let alone AFTER such an attack has already OCCURRED!

    Ahmadinejad explicitly said it again during his UN visit – that Iran will not try to compete with the US nuclear arsenal.

    In a related mistake, Glenn Greenwald in a recent article suggests that the US fear Iranian nukes because Iran could deter the US from attacking countries freely. This is not the case. The US does not "fear" Iranian nukes, because the senior leadership of the US KNOWS that Iran does NOT have a nuclear weapons program and KNOWS that Iran could not deter the US from attacking anyone if they DID have them.

    The SOLE purpose of the Iranian nuclear "crisis" is a red herring to cover the US intent to control the Middle East by disrupting and breaking up all the countries which are opposed to US hegemony.

    • Mehrnaz Shahabi

      Richardhack, Very well said. Thank you! I think the fear of Iran becoming nuclear capable comes primary from Israelis who view the world from the prism of deep paranoia and projected aggression. But as you say, the nuclear issue is a pretext for a system overthrow and hegemony. This is so clear from the history of the nuclear issue in how the US has rejected all attempts and concessions by Iran to reassure the US of its purely civilian intentions, including suspension of enrichment for two years, accepting the additional protocol for two years and having kept it on the table ever since as a concession, Tehran Agreement 2010 brokered by Turkey and Brazil to transport 1200 kg of its enriched uranium out of Iran (just as Obama had sought as a confidence building measure), and the most recent concession to cease 20% enrichment, which was once again rejected by the US!

  • Kate Jones

    "… an international bully attacked us without provocation" — I was with the author up to this point. This is the blind spot we Americans have. We cannot imagine that our aggressive foreign policy and meddling with other countries' sovereignty could possibly provoke their citizens to develop a resistance and freedom fighters who regret that they have only one life to give for their country and then give it anyway. And when all appeals to reason and justice fail, they must resort to extreme acts to get the world's attention.

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  • polo lacosp

    Thank you! I think the fear of Iran becoming nuclear capable comes primary from Israelis who view the world from the prism of deep paranoia and projected aggression. But as you say, the nuclear issue is a pretext for a system overthrow and hegemony. This is so clear from the history of the nuclear issue in how the US has rejected all attempts and conce polo hackett

  • jordon

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