Six Questions About the Nuclear Crisis in the Middle East
The emotional factors, and the scientific ones.
Rodrigo Buendia/AFP/Getty Images; Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images.
Not long ago an editor at a respected scientific journal contacted me. He wanted to know if I could expand—scientifically—upon the scenarios I sketched out in my recent book, assessing the likelihood of nuclear war in the Middle East. The book began with an account of a 2007 Israeli raid on a nuclear reactor being built in a remote corner of Syria. A hushed-up rehearsal, perhaps, for a future raid on Iran.
In these conjectural sketches I had adumbrated the possibility that by the Law of Unintended Consequences, an attack by Israel (or by Iran) could lead to a cascade of ever more grave developments, ranging from a regional nuclear war to, potentially, a global one. New, perhaps unanswerable questions have emerged in the interim as tension over Iran’s (and Israel’s) intentions have escalated. And they are certainly worth examining, but are they soluble by science?
The science journal editor seemed to think so. He felt we could use science to predict the outcomes of various scenarios, and he seemed to have a likely result in mind already: that war was so irrational it was near impossible. First, we’d calculate the amount of uranium the Iranians had already enriched to 20 percent U-235, the bomb-making uranium isotope that needs to be separated by high-tech centrifuges from the more plentiful, less dangerous, U-238. Twenty percent enrichment has been allowed for some “peaceful purposes” under the nuclear nonproliferation treaty which Iran (but not Israel) has signed. Iran claims “medical research” has been the only aim of their nuclear enrichment activities. But it is a critical step toward making bomb-ready nuclear material.
Then, we’d calculate how much bomb-grade fuel would be produced if Iran’s uranium were further enriched to 90 percent U-235, the standard for nuclear weapons, which would allow us to determine how many bombs, of what kiloton or megaton explosive potential, Iran could build in the shelter of their “zone of immunity” from Israeli attack.
“Zone of immunity” is Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak’s term for bomb-making facilities buried so deep they’d be theoretically impossible to target and destroy with Israeli conventional weaponry. The editor seemed convinced that the 265 feet of mountainous rock shielding the once-secret Iranian nuclear processing facilities at Fordow near the Holy City of Qom would afford such immunity.
All this assumes of course the unlikely probability we would find reliable figures to start from. But, assuming that, next we’d calculate the explosive power of Israeli “bunker buster” bombs and decide (scientifically!) whether they would be enough to destroy the secret nuclear fuel enrichment facilities at Fordow, Parchin, and other locales, the ones the Iranians refuse to let the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors see. We could then demonstrate—scientifically!—that an Israeli attack would not be able to destroy enough nuclear material and bomb-making technology to prevent Iran from continuing to make a bomb they’d be even more likely want to use sooner or later.
QED, the Israelis would see our analysis (or have made the same analysis already) and we would save the world with science! Or something. Oh, and as for those putative Iranian nukes: no problemo, the mullahs would be deterred or contained by the threat of retaliation after they destroyed the Israelis.
If only it were that easy.
The assumption in this scenario is that the Israelis would see no alternative but to accept the inevitability of possession of nuclear weapons in the hands of an apocalyptically minded group of theocrats which has recurrently threatened to annihilate them. That the emotional memory of the Holocaust and the horrific consequences of the failure to take threats of annihilation seriously in the ’30s would not dispose them to act, no matter what “science” suggested about their ability to deter the threat. And that the Israelis—who surprised the world with techno-feats beyond public knowledge in its attacks on the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 and the secret Syrian reactor building in 2007, and who have been war gaming Iran for more than a decade—didn't have an as-yet-undisclosed capacity or strategy in place.
The scenario also ignores the fact that, given its history, Israel might decide even an incomplete attack that didn’t succeed in utterly destroying Iran’s nuclear weapons capacity, but drastically slowed Iranian progress would be preferable to sitting tight and doing nothing. And it assumes that Israel—faced with annihilation—would not use its nuclear weaponry in some fashion, that it would rely on conventional weapons, rather than using a nuclear cruise missile potentially launched from a submarine to turn the mountain now sheltering Iranian nuclear facilities into dust.
This is an instance where the emotional factor—the influence of tragic history and memory—trumps pure science in evaluating possible scenarios in this probably insoluble situation.
“Probably insoluble.” You’re not supposed to say that! There’s always a solution once everyone sees reason, right? “Solutionism” is a term I first saw used by Jeffrey Goldberg to describe the Pollyanna-like American predisposition to believe there’s a solution to every problem, including the ones in the Middle East. The mantra of the solutionists recently has been that even if Iran gets the bomb, it’s no big deal: The Iranians would be deterred or “contained” by fear of retaliation, of “obliteration” as Hillary Clinton put it, because it’s only rational to act that way. But this faith in rationality and self-preservation fails to take into account the frequent irrationality of faith. For example, an influential faction of the mullahs running the Iranian theocracy are reportedly adherents of the apocalyptic strain of Shiite theology which believes a world conflagration is a pre-condition for the return of the Hidden Imam and the salvific End of Days. Which means some Iranian leaders might in fact welcome nuclear chaos, even if it results in national martyrdom. Solutionists who believe in Cold War-style nuclear deterrence in the Middle East neglect the differences. Deterrence worked during the Cold War when there was a bipolar standoff between just two nuclear powers, both of whom were comparatively rational (or interested in self-preservation at least).
Many neglect to take into account the third nuclear power in the region: Pakistan. Its estimated 90 nuclear warheads are either one coup away from Taliban control or up on sale in the “nuclear bazaar” that many believe Pakistan’s bomb maker A.Q. Khan never stopped operating despite his “detention.”
Ron Rosenbaum is the author of The Shakespeare Wars and Explaining Hitler. His latest book is How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III.