'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

War with Iran? Still a Frightening Prospect 

Last year, in March of 2006, I posted a lengthy statement about why a war with Iran would be catastrophic. Both Seymour Hersh, the journalist, and Jorge Hirsch, the nuclear physicist, had just written extensively on the subject. Perhaps, as the administration is again launching a propaganda effort to generate public support, it is appropriate to revisit what they said.

"It's a Tough Decision, But We Made It in Japan"

Jorge Hirsch, a University of California, San Diego physics professor, has been sounding the alarm for over a year about the prospect that the United States will use nuclear weapons against Iran, with this article being a representative example of his work. His articles on the subject display an obssesive attention to detail that one associates with a serious academic.

Now, Seymour Hersh has published an article in the New Yorker, stating that Bush has accelerated planning for a war against Iran:

The Bush Administration, while publicly advocating diplomacy in order to stop Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon, has increased clandestine activities inside Iran and intensified planning for a possible major air attack. Current and former American military and intelligence officials said that Air Force planning groups are drawing up lists of targets, and teams of American combat troops have been ordered into Iran, under cover, to collect targeting data and to establish contact with anti-government ethnic-minority groups. The officials say that President Bush is determined to deny the Iranian regime the opportunity to begin a pilot program, planned for this spring, to enrich uranium.

More specifically:

Some operations, apparently aimed in part at intimidating Iran, are already under way. American Naval tactical aircraft, operating from carriers in the Arabian Sea, have been flying simulated nuclear-weapons delivery missions—rapid ascending maneuvers known as “over the shoulder” bombing—since last summer, the former official said, within range of Iranian coastal radars.

Yes, you read that right. Some operations, apparently aimed in part at intimidating Iran, are already under way. American Naval tactical aircraft, operating from carriers in the Arabian Sea, have been flying simulated nuclear-weapons delivery missions . . The first use of nuclear weapons, with potentially catastrophic consequences is being considered as a centerpiece of a massive bombing campaign against Iran:

One of the military’s initial option plans, as presented to the White House by the Pentagon this winter, calls for the use of a bunker-buster tactical nuclear weapon, such as the B61-11, against underground nuclear sites. One target is Iran’s main centrifuge plant, at Natanz, nearly two hundred miles south of Tehran. Natanz, which is no longer under I.A.E.A. safeguards, reportedly has underground floor space to hold fifty thousand centrifuges, and laboratories and workspaces buried approximately seventy-five feet beneath the surface. That number of centrifuges could provide enough enriched uranium for about twenty nuclear warheads a year. (Iran has acknowledged that it initially kept the existence of its enrichment program hidden from I.A.E.A. inspectors, but claims that none of its current activity is barred by the Non-Proliferation Treaty.) The elimination of Natanz would be a major setback for Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but the conventional weapons in the American arsenal could not insure the destruction of facilities under seventy-five feet of earth and rock, especially if they are reinforced with concrete.

Debate within the administration over this prospect is intense:

The lack of reliable intelligence leaves military planners, given the goal of totally destroying the sites, little choice but to consider the use of tactical nuclear weapons. “Every other option, in the view of the nuclear weaponeers, would leave a gap,” the former senior intelligence official said. “ ‘Decisive’ is the key word of the Air Force’s planning. It’s a tough decision. But we made it in Japan.”

He went on, “Nuclear planners go through extensive training and learn the technical details of damage and fallout—we’re talking about mushroom clouds, radiation, mass casualties, and contamination over years. This is not an underground nuclear test, where all you see is the earth raised a little bit. These politicians don’t have a clue, and whenever anybody tries to get it out”—remove the nuclear option—“they’re shouted down.”

The attention given to the nuclear option has created serious misgivings inside the offices of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he added, and some officers have talked about resigning. Late this winter, the Joint Chiefs of Staff sought to remove the nuclear option from the evolving war plans for Iran—without success, the former intelligence official said. “The White House said, ‘Why are you challenging this? The option came from you.’ ”

The Pentagon adviser on the war on terror confirmed that some in the Administration were looking seriously at this option, which he linked to a resurgence of interest in tactical nuclear weapons among Pentagon civilians and in policy circles. He called it “a juggernaut that has to be stopped.” He also confirmed that some senior officers and officials were considering resigning over the issue. “There are very strong sentiments within the military against brandishing nuclear weapons against other countries,” the adviser told me. “This goes to high levels.” The matter may soon reach a decisive point, he said, because the Joint Chiefs had agreed to give President Bush a formal recommendation stating that they are strongly opposed to considering the nuclear option for Iran. “The internal debate on this has hardened in recent weeks,” the adviser said. “And, if senior Pentagon officers express their opposition to the use of offensive nuclear weapons, then it will never happen.”

The adviser added, however, that the idea of using tactical nuclear weapons in such situations has gained support from the Defense Science Board, an advisory panel whose members are selected by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. “They’re telling the Pentagon that we can build the B61 with more blast and less radiation,” he said.

Jorge Hirsch has already exhaustively described the potentially catastrophic consequences of the use of nuclear weapons against 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?

Hirsch has also eloquently explained "the military's moral dilemma":

Men and women in the military forces, including civilian employees, may be facing a difficult moral choice at this very moment and in the coming weeks, akin to the moral choices faced by Colin Powell and Dan Ellsberg. The paths these two men followed were radically different.

Colin Powell was an American hero, widely respected and admired at the time he was appointed secretary of state in 2001. In February 2003, he chose to follow orders despite his own serious misgivings, and delivered the pivotal UN address that paved the way for the U.S. invasion of Iraq the following month. Today, most Americans believe the Iraq invasion was wrong, and Colin Powell is disgraced, his future destroyed, and his great past achievements forgotten.

Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst, played a significant role in ending the Vietnam War by leaking the Pentagon Papers. He knew that he would face prosecution for breaking the law, but was convinced it was the correct moral choice. His courageous and principled action earned him respect and gratitude.

The Navy has just reminded its members and civilian employees what the consequences are of violating provisions concerning the release of information about the nuclear capabilities of U.S. forces. Why right now, for the first time in 12 years? Because it is well aware of moral choices that its members may face, and it hopes to deter certain actions. But courageous men and women are not easily deterred.

To disobey orders and laws and to leak information are difficult actions that entail risks. Still, many principled individuals have done it in the past and will continue to do it in the future. Conscientious objection to the threat and use of nuclear weapons is a moral choice.

Once the American public becomes fully aware that military action against Iran will include the planned use of nuclear weapons, public support for military action will quickly disappear. Anything could get the ball rolling. A great catastrophe will have been averted.

Even U.S. military law recognizes that there is no requirement to obey orders that are unlawful. The use of nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear country can be argued to be in violation of international law, the principle of just war, the principle of proportionality, common standards of morality and customs that make up the law of armed conflict. Even if the nuclear weapons used are small, because they are likely to cause escalation of the conflict they violate the principle of proportionality and will cause unnecessary suffering.

The Nuremberg Tribunal, which the United States helped to create, established that "The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him."

To follow orders or to disobey orders, to keep information secret or to leak it, are choices for each individual to make – extremely difficult choices that have consequences. But not choosing is not an option.

We can only pray that people in positions of power within the Defense Department, those people who are already expressing vehement objections to the use of nuclear weapons against Iran, intensify their efforts if they fail to internally persuade the Bush Administration to change course. We must honestly acknowlege that it is unlikely to do so, given the Iraqi experience. Such actions of resistance will necessarily include the measures described by Hirsch, and, perhaps, even more confrontational ones.

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