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December 28, 2005

Nuking Iran With
the UN's Blessing


Only the American people can stop it

by Jorge Hirsch

In the "global war on terror," Iran is the next target, having been designated by the U.S. State Department [.pdf] as "the most active state sponsor of terrorism" in the world. The United Nations has given its blessing, and the U.S. will fill in the blanks.

Before we analyze this, however, let us ask ourselves: why not Florida instead? In fact, Florida should be way ahead on the list. Family considerations should not play a role in U.S. policy decisions.

Let's compare the cases. For Florida:

Instead, the connections between 9/11 and Iran are much more tenuous, according to the 9/11 Commission:

  • "Senior al-Qaeda operatives and trainers traveled to Iran to receive training in explosives" in 1993.
  • "Iran facilitated the transit of al-Qaeda members into and out of Afghanistan before 9/11, and some of these were future 9/11 hijackers."
  • "We have found no evidence that Iran or Hezbollah was aware of the planning for what later became the 9/11 attack."

The 9/11 hijackers used planes, not explosives. So I very much hope that the Pentagon is revising its Nuclear Strike Plan. A precision-guided missile with a nuclear warhead or a low-yield nuclear gravity bomb should be effective in vaporizing both aboveground and underground facilities of Huffman Aviation School in Venice, Fla., with minimal collateral damage.

The fact is, terrorists do not need "state sponsors" to do their job. The 9/11 hijackers lived in the U.S., rented apartments, opened bank accounts, got drivers licenses, rented cars, took English lessons, had jobs, joined gyms, learned the needed flying skills, bought their box-cutter knives, and blew themselves up in the good old United States. And so will the next terrorists who strike us.

Furthermore, some of the 9/11 hijackers lived and studied in Hamburg, Germany. And they met in Madrid. So are Hamburg and Madrid next on the strike list?

Does anybody really believe that the "training camps" in Afghanistan played any significant role in 9/11? Can somebody please explain what exactly the 9/11 hijackers learned at those training camps that they couldn't learn elsewhere?

Does anybody really believe that the purported meeting, which in fact never took place, of Mohamed Atta and an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague would have played a significant role even if it had taken place?

Yet we are embarked in a "global war of terror" in response to the 9/11 attacks that has led to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and is about to lead to a U.S. nuclear attack against Iran.

Because make no mistake, an aerial attack on Iran that will include low-yield nuclear bombs is the next step in the "global war on terror," unless something extraordinary happens to derail it.

The "Legal" Framework

The United States invaded Iraq under the pretext of enforcing UN Security Council resolution (UNSCR) 1441. Bush stated in his address to the nation on March 17, 2003,

"On November 8th, the Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1441, finding Iraq in material breach of its obligations, and vowing serious consequences if Iraq did not fully and immediately disarm."

Given that the U.S. was unable, despite strenuous efforts, to obtain a new resolution explicitly authorizing the use of force, Bush continued:

"These governments share our assessment of the danger, but not our resolve to meet it. The United Nations Security Council has not lived up to its responsibilities, so we will rise to ours."

The role of UNSCR 1441 for Iraq will be played by UNSCR 1540 for Iran.

UNSCR 1540

In preparation for the Iran strike, the U.S. in April 2004 proposed and the Security Council unanimously adopted this resolution against "the proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and their means of delivery." The resolution was adopted under Chapter VII of the UN charter, which envisages the use of force to enforce resolutions (unlike resolutions adopted under Chapter VI, which deals with "pacific resolution of disputes"). "Affirming [the Security Council's] resolve to take appropriate and effective actions against any threat to international peace and security caused by the proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and their means of delivery," the resolution "decides that all States shall refrain from providing any form of support to non-State actors that attempt to develop, acquire, manufacture, possess, transport, transfer, or use nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons and their means of delivery."

The United States accuses Iran of having a covert program to develop nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. It states,

  • "Iran has an offensive biological weapons program in violation of the BWC."
  • "Iran is acting to retain and modernize key elements of its CW infrastructure to include an offensive CW R&D capability."

And

  • "Iran continues its extensive efforts to develop the means to deliver weapons of mass destruction."

The U.S. further accuses Iran of being the principal sponsor of terrorism in the world, of harboring al-Qaeda members, and of possible links to 9/11. The United States claims for itself the right to act preemptively ("[T]he United States cannot remain idle while danger gathers") and did so in invading Iraq. Well then?

You got it. The U.S. will claim the right under Chapter VII of the UN to enforce UNSCR 1540 by aerial bombing of Iran's nuclear and missile facilities ("means of delivery"), once negotiations between Iran and the European Union on Iran's nuclear program reach a stalemate.

This time, the U.S. will not even try to obtain explicit UN authorization to act, since it knows it is not in the cards. It didn't matter last time, so why bother now?

A supporting role will be provided by UNSC "anti-terrorism" resolution 1373, adopted after Sept. 11, also under UN Chapter VII. According to UNSCR 1373, "all States should prevent those who finance, plan, facilitate or commit terrorist acts from using their respective territories for those purposes against other countries and their citizens." It also decides that all states shall "[r]efrain from providing any form of support, active or passive, to entities or persons involved in terrorist acts, including by suppressing recruitment of members of terrorist groups and eliminating the supply of weapons to terrorists."

The United States and Israel accuse Iran of supporting and supplying weapons to terrorist groups such as Hezbollah.

There is, of course, a minor point to observe. Iran denies all these accusations, and the U.S. has not supplied proof for any of them. In a full-page ad published in the New York Times, Iran explains rather convincingly why it wants to enrich uranium and why it is not interested in pursuing nuclear weapons. In its report to the United Nations pursuant to UN resolution 1373 it details its efforts and laws to combat terrorism, and in its report for UN resolution 1455 (on al-Qaeda) it denies any connection with al-Qaeda. In its report to the UN pursuant to resolution 1540, it describes in detail its efforts for nonproliferation and reminds that it is a signatory to all international nonproliferation treaties and party to all international instruments banning WMD. Iran denies that it supports any terrorist activities anywhere and says that it only gives "moral support" to Hezbollah. While the United States and the European Union have labeled Hezbollah a terrorist organization, the United Nations has not, and it is certainly not regarded as such in the Muslim word. All of Iran's statements to the UN are ignored by the U.S., which states (without proof), that "Iran's pursuit of these deadly weapons, despite its adherence to treaties that ban them marks it as a rogue state, and it will remain so until it completely, verifiably, and irreversibly dismantles its WMD-related programs." Remember Iraq?

The fact is, resolutions 1540 and 1373 together with baseless accusations do not give the U.S. a right to attack Iran. However, bombing Iran under these resolutions is no different from invading Iraq under resolution 1441. Since the UN did not condemn the Iraq invasion after it happened (and even "blessed it" with resolutions 1483, 1500, 1511, and 1546), the U.S. can safely assume that it will do the same in this case.

Concerning the use of nuclear weapons against Iran, as discussed in an earlier column, it is technically "legal" for the United States to do so. As stressed in U.S. documents [.pdf], "no customary or conventional international law prohibits nations from employing nuclear weapons in armed conflict." (This of course ignores an "Advisory Opinion" from the International Court of Justice). Since Iran was declared in "noncompliance" with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty on Sept. 24, 2005, the "negative security assurance" issued by the U.S. to the UN in 1995 (UNSCR 984) promising to refrain from using nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states no longer applies to Iran.

The Practical Framework

Even if it is not "more illegal" to nuke Iran than it was to invade Iraq, we may still ask: (a) can it happen?, (b) will it happen?, and (c) how will it all get started?

As discussed in previous columns, all the elements are in place so that it can happen. The main points:

  1. The president alone (without consulting Congress) has authority to initiate an aerial attack against Iran's facilities under the War Powers Resolution and Senate Joint Resolution 23 of 2001.
  2. The president has sole authority to initiate the use of nuclear weapons in a conflict, or to delegate that authority to others. This has always been U.S. policy.
  3. There appears to be no one in the upper echelons of the Bush administration who would have any qualms about a preemptive aerial attack against Iran. In addition, among these top officials there are several who have a history of advocating the offensive use of nuclear weapons, and there is not a single one known to hold the opposing point of view.

So it is clear that it can happen. The answer to "will it happen?" is equally clear. There is a reason Iran was included in the "axis of evil" speech of 2001, and why there is so much administration rhetoric against Iran. Such talk has prepared the public for an attack. Very recent developments in relation with Turkey suggest that the time is drawing near. Turkey played an important role in the preparations for war against Iraq, and it appears to be playing a role again in the preparations for an Iran offensive.

Furthermore, the United States' stance with respect to Iran's nuclear ambitions is clearly designed to bring about a diplomatic impasse. The U.S. is not negotiating with Iran directly, and it emphasizes that it is not part of any possible compromise. Once a diplomatic stalemate is reached, does anybody believe that the U.S. will just sit back and watch Iran start to enrich uranium, or even continue reprocessing, after all the statements it has made that this is unacceptable? Can't you already hear the future words of our fearless leader on announcing the attack on Iran?

"I believe a president must confront problems and not pass them on to future presidents and future generations. I believe the most solemn duty of the American president is to protect the American people. If America shows uncertainty and weakness in this decade, the world will drift toward tragedy. This will not happen on my watch."

As for how it will all get started, there is room for speculation. One possibility is that Israel will pull the trigger, with a surprise (conventional) bombing of Bushehr and other facilities, which could "force" the U.S. to join in to protect Israel and U.S. forces in Iraq from Iranian retaliation. Recent statements by Israeli officials hint at this possibility, but it could be a smokescreen. Alternatively, Israel and the U.S. could attack jointly, or the U.S. could attack alone. This could be triggered by Iran resuming enrichment activities, or just by a Russian veto on measures against Iran at the Security Council. It is likely to be accompanied with some new U.S. "revelation" about Iran's alleged chemical/biological weapons programs and its alleged connections to terrorists. If the U.S. participates in the initial attack, it is likely to first give some kind of ultimatum to Iran, just as it gave an unacceptable ultimatum to Iraq. Unlike Israel, the U.S. still pretends to abide by some international norms of conduct and would not launch a surprise attack.

The ultimatum could be that Iran not only stop all uranium reprocessing and enrichment activities, but that it also destroy all its nuclear installations and missiles under U.S. and international supervision or face the possibility of an attack "at a time of our choosing." And even if Iran were to accept, the attack would not be averted, because disarmament is not the issue any more than it was in the case of Iraq. Recall that Iraq was not spared even after agreeing to destroy its missiles and doing so. It didn't help one bit.

Other possible scenarios that could get the process going include a terrorist act against Americans that the U.S. can blame on Iran; some major unrest in Iraq that the U.S. can blame on Iran; some new revelation of "classified information" that Iran is "threatening" the U.S.; or a Tonkin-Gulf-like incident.

Why Nukes Will Be Used

As discussed in previous columns, over the past several years the Bush administration has laid out a new Nuclear Posture for the United States that essentially guarantees that low-yield nuclear weapons will be used in the upcoming conflict with Iran. The essence can be summarized in the following statement in the Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations [.pdf]:

"Integrating conventional and nuclear attacks will ensure the most efficient use of force and provide U.S. leaders with a broader range of strike options to address immediate contingencies. Integration of conventional and nuclear forces is therefore crucial to the success of any comprehensive strategy. This integration will ensure optimal targeting, minimal collateral damage, and reduce the probability of escalation."

In other words, the new Nuclear Posture has completely erased the distinction between nuclear and non-nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are now "integrated" with conventional weapons and will be used if they are militarily expedient. Given that there are a large number of underground targets in Iran to be destroyed, and that using nuclear bombs will be expected to deter Iran from responding with missiles and conventional forces to the U.S. attack, it is almost inconceivable that nuclear bombs would not be used.

Why isn't America worried sick about this possibility? There are three reasons.

  1. People think that if the U.S. planned to do something as drastic as using nuclear bombs, there would be some advance warning. In fact, there has been, but it is subtle enough that it will only become clear after the fact. The code words are all our options. They have been used by the administration in connection with resolving the Iran situation, in connection with using nuclear weapons in response to WMD, and in connection with predicting future attacks on a state suspected of having WMD.
  2. Most people associate nuclear bombs with enormous destruction, on the scale of Hiroshima or larger. Hence they find it inconceivable that the U.S. would use nuclear bombs against Iran or other non-nuclear nations. They don't realize that there are low-yield nuclear weapons (with yields as small as 1/1,000 of Hiroshima) and that the "nuclear hitmen" in the administration expect to use such "small" nuclear bombs against Iranian underground installations, causing little "collateral damage."
  3. The few people who do realize that this may happen are not worried because they consider it to be in the best interests of the United States, as the nuclear hitmen do.

Why the Nuclear Hitmen Are Doing This

Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the other nuclear hitmen are not completely irrational nuts, nor are they completely stupid nor even completely evil. They sincerely believe that nuking Iran is in the best long-term interests of the United States and of the world, for the following reasons:

The New American Century

This vision of American's preeminent role in the world holds that "we cannot safely avoid the responsibilities of global leadership or the costs that are associated with its exercise." They realize there will be some "costs" in nuking Iran, but regard those costs as worth paying as part of achieving "America's unique role in preserving and extending an international order friendly to our security, our prosperity, and our principles."

No Nuclear Threshold

In the minds of the nuclear hitmen, there seems to be no "threshold" for the use of nuclear weapons. This is evident from various documents and speeches. If a nuclear bomb will kill the same or a smaller number of people than a conventional bomb, it is equally usable or even preferable "[f]or rapid and favorable war termination on U.S. terms." There is absolutely no consideration given to the fact that nukes are a qualitatively different kind of weapon. "Use of nuclear weapons within a theater requires that nuclear and conventional plans be integrated to the greatest extent possible."

Nuclear Deterrent

On the other hand, the nuclear hitmen do realize that for much of the rest of the world there is a qualitative difference between nuclear and non-nuclear weapons. Much of the world regards nuclear weapons as unusable except in the most extreme circumstances. This, however, presents a contradiction to the stated main goal of nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal: to influence an adversary's actions. As the Nuclear Posture Review states:

"U.S. nuclear forces will now be used to dissuade adversaries from undertaking military programs or operations that could threaten U.S. interests or those of allies and friends. Desired capabilities for nuclear weapons systems in flexible, adaptable strike plans include options for variable and reduced yields, high accuracy, and timely employment. These capabilities would help deter enemy use of WMD or limit collateral damage, should the United States have to defeat enemy WMD capabilities."

However, to "dissuade" and "deter," the nuclear option has to be credible, and if most people believe there is a sharp nuclear threshold and nuclear weapons are unusable, it follows that nuclear weapons are useless to dissuade and deter. The value of the U.S. nuclear arsenal to dissuade and deter adversary actions that do not involve an existential threat to the United States needs to be established, since it has no credibility. That is what nuking Iran will achieve, and that is why the nuclear hitmen believe it is a worthy goal.

The Bush Legacy

Every president naturally longs to leave a worthy and lasting legacy. None of Bush's actions so far is likely to be regarded as worthwhile in the future: quite the opposite. History is likely to judge his performance harshly and in particular significantly worse than his father's, especially if the situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate. However, there is no question that crossing the nuclear threshold for the first time in 60 years will change the world and overshadow all the other actions of this administration. To the extent that Bush believes such an action to be in the long-term interests of the United States, for the reasons outlined above, it is unlikely he would want to defer this "honor" to a future president, and particularly not to his kid brother.

The Consequences of Nuking Iran

It is arguably possible that the nuclear hitmen's most optimistic expectations will be realized: the U.S. will succeed in crossing the nuclear threshold by using a few low-yield nuclear bombs against Iranian installations, without resulting in significant escalation, and achieve its goals of destroying Iran's military capabilities and establishing the value of the U.S. nuclear deterrent. It is also certainly possible, and in my view much more likely, that the results will be disastrous, as follows:

(1) A very large number of people will die.

For most of the world, the use of nuclear weapons is a major qualitative step, even if the yield and destruction of the nuclear weapons used is the same or less than that of conventional weapons. As a consequence, this action is likely to bring about an "irrational" reaction from Iran. No U.S. threat will deter Iran from retaliating any way it can by firing all its missiles and launching a massive invasion of Iraq with millions of poorly armed but determined Basij militia. The U.S. will "have to" respond with large-scale bombing, including with nuclear bombs, causing potentially hundreds of thousands of Iranian casualties. This is likely to cause an immediate, large upheaval in the Middle East, with unforeseeable consequences. These events are not likely to be forgotten by the 1 billion-large worldwide Muslim community.

(2) America will be a pariah state.

The administration hopes that the use of nuclear bombs in this conflict will be viewed as "unavoidable" to save lives, ours and theirs. The world will not buy that interpretation. A cursory search on the Internet today makes it clear that it is already widely believed that the upcoming nuking of Iran is an event planned by the Bush administration (e.g., the Philip Giraldi story). Disclosures that will surely come after the fact will make this premeditation even more evident (like the Downing Street memos in the case of Iraq). The planned use of nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear state in the name of nuclear nonproliferation, based on false accusations and concocted scenarios, will not be condoned by the world.

In the case of Iraq, the realization that the invasion had been planned in advance and Americans had been lied to has led to public disenchantment with the Bush administration, yet it has not led to universal condemnation. Attacking Iran will be different, because the use of nukes will affect every man, woman, and child in the world. The world will regard the Bush administration as criminal. Because Americans elected Bush for a second term and did nothing to impede his actions, all Americans will share responsibility in the eyes of the world. Each of us could have done more to prevent this from happening.

This is likely to result in a worldwide shunning of everything American. A tidal wave of boycott America fervor is likely to result, and no matter how powerful America is today, the rest of the world acting together can bring America to its knees and spell the end of all dreams of a "New American Century."

(3) Anti-Semitism will surge worldwide.

Israel will be regarded as having played a key role in these events, whether or not it participates in the military action. Israeli politicians have made it abundantly clear that Iran's nuclear ambitions represent an "existential threat" to Israel, so Israel will be regarded as instigator, given the strength of the Israeli lobby in America. Jewish organizations around the world have been supportive of the Israeli stance and will be regarded as complicit.

As a consequence, a resurgence of worldwide anti-Semitism will occur, even in America. The old charges that Jews have a divided allegiance to their home country and to Israel will resurface, and Jewish communities in every country will face hostility and aggression.

Just like Bush's invasion of Iraq erased the world's feelings of sympathy to America after the 9/11 attacks, so will the nuking of Iran erase any remaining feelings of sympathy for the state of Israel.

(4) Nuclear terrorism against America will become more likely.

The incentive for terrorist groups to use a nuclear weapon against America will be enormous after America uses nuclear weapons, even if only "small" ones, against Iran. No matter how much "counterproliferation" America undertakes, eventually a terrorist group will obtain or manufacture a nuclear bomb. And no matter how large a "deterrent" the American nuclear arsenal is, a single nuclear bombing in an American city will have devastating consequences.

Those who argue that nuclear terrorism will happen regardless of whether the U.S. nukes Iran or not should consider the fact that there has never been a chemical terrorist attack against America, despite the fact that chemical weapons have existed for a long time and shouldn't be too hard for terrorist groups to obtain. Could it be related to the fact that America does not use chemical weapons against others?

(5) Nuclear proliferation and global nuclear war may ensue.

The main reason why nuking Iran will affect every human being is that it will spell the end of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and lead to widespread nuclear proliferation. It will not matter how many eloquent speeches Bush gives afterwards explaining why it was "necessary." It will not matter if the next American president is a pacifist who vows never to do it again. It will not matter if think tanks and scientists and politicians and arms-control organizations and NGOs deplore it as a unique aberration of the Bush administration. The fact is, the entire American system will be seen as having conspired to let this happen.

After America has used a nuclear weapon against a non-nuclear country, all the speeches and studies and documents and excuses and promises will not change the facts. All countries will strive to acquire nuclear weapons as quickly as possible. America will prevent some from doing so by military force, but many others will succeed. With no remaining nuclear taboo, and many more countries with nuclear weapons (with a total power of 1 million Hiroshima bombs, hence the potential to destroy humanity many times over), does anybody doubt the outcome?

 

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Jorge Hirsch is a professor of physics at the University of California San Diego.

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