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.”
Solutionists who put their faith in deterrence neglect the chilling statement by Iranian Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani suggesting that a nuclear conflict would not be overly troubling, because "the application of an atomic bomb would not leave anything in Israel, but the same thing would just produce damages in the Muslim world." Behind the sinister euphemisms is a grotesque calculation. The "application of an atomic bomb" means dropping one on Israel. "Leaving nothing in Israel" can only be interpreted as leaving no people alive. A second holocaust courtesy of the Holocaust deniers. And an Israeli nuclear retaliation would "just produce damages in the Muslim world." Damages! Israel is said to have some 200 nuclear warheads and an invulnerable retaliatory capacity (stashed in undetectable submarines). Just "damages" in the Muslim world might mean deaths in the tens of millions.
These are, ultimately, the stakes we can expect in a regional nuclear war—and it should never be forgotten that an attack on a facility that contains nuclear fuel turns each target into a nuclear "dirty bomb," however deeply buried, one whose long term consequences are still unknown.
Can science predict—or influence—outcomes in the Middle East? After some consideration of his well-meaning offer, I told the science journal’s editor I didn’t think I could accept the assignment, because there were so many immeasurable emotional factors involved in the Iran-Israel nuclear situation. In some ways, lamentable or not, science is a distraction, a false refuge from the ominous emotional undercurrents more likely to be crucial to history. Science is a variety of solutionism.
As a non-solutionist I have no good answers to the dire questions we face. But I have sought to separate out six of the key unanswered questions that will decide the outcome and which still offer no easy or comforting answers.
Q. Would President Obama ever take military action against Iran and its nuclear facilities?
A. Recently I was at a dinner with a writer who had just interviewed Obama. And when I asked him this question, he said he was absolutely convinced that Obama would be willing to order a strike. But not because of Israel. Or the Israel lobby. Rather, because of his longtime grounding in the thinking of the anti-nuclear proliferation movement.
It sounds unlikely at first, but it makes a certain kind of sense: Obama wrote a seminar paper at Columbia about the nuclear freeze movement, after all. He probably won the Nobel Prize because of his speech calling for the abolition of all nuclear weapons (remember that?) and, this reporter suspects, he believes that Iranian possession of a nuclear weapon will mean a Middle East arms race. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Sudan, Egypt, even the Emirates will want them, while Israel already has a couple hundred nuclear warheads, and Pakistan around a hundred. Sooner or later, this proliferating arms race will lead to regional (or even global) nuclear war.
I still can’t decide if I can visualize Obama ordering a reluctant military to start another war for the sake of nonproliferation. It sounds counterintuitive, does it not, but it now seems that Iranian nuclear capability to build a bomb—not even the actual "breakout" race to assemble it—is a "red line” for the president. Maybe the attack he's alluding to with his "all options are on the table" rhetoric will start and end such a war. I've come to the tragic conclusion that the world will not really move to ban nuclear weapons until it gets another taste of their sinister sting, another preview of the Armageddon they promise in the form of a "small" nuclear war. Obama has said he doesn’t want a “temporary” solution—but more likely it would be a war that would never end, in terms of consequences.
Q. How do the feelings of the Iranian populace factor in?
A. This is an emotional aspect of the situation I have rarely seen discussed in debates over whether Iran shoud be "allowed to have the bomb." I thought of the term “Cuba Syndrome” when I read an otherwise unsurprising op-ed in the Times by Dennis Ross in which the veteran Mideast diplomat, among other things, declared Iran “must not have nuclear weapons.” There was something in his imperious tone that made me feel that if I were an Iranian person on the street—not some apocalyptic-minded mullah, perhaps even a participant in the Green Revolution—-hearing this, I would feel my sense of dignity denigrated. It made me think of Cuba, whose people have endured a half century of privations and immiseration because of U.S sanctions and yet have clung to an oppressive police state regime. Why? Because of emotion, the emotion of dignity. Because they didn’t want to be told who should rule them by the United States and be forced to act subserviently. These things are often more important to people than new American cars.
The connection: Iran would likely continue its bomb program even if a raid left its current facilities in smoking ruins. If only because of the Cuba Syndrome. Even if it took another half century, they would get one nuclear weapon built, or buy one from North Korea or Pakistan. And Israel—which has been called a “one-bomb state,” in the sense that a one-megaton bomb airburst over Tel Aviv would annihilate the country—will never escape that shadow.
Q. Why did Hezbollah’s Sheikh Nasrallah say last month he would sit and think if Israel attacked Iran?
A. Sheikh Nasrallah is the head of Hezbollah, the Iranian-sponsored anti-Israel terrorist group—so designated by the State Department—now virtually ruling Lebanon. Hezbollah has become less popular lately because the Lebanese people believe that if Israel were to attack Iran it would first strike Hezbollah’s rocket concentrations in Lebanon, to pre-emptively ward off counterstrikes in support of Iran, and the battered country would suffer again.
So Sheikh Nasrallah was essentially quoted saying “not so fast” on that pre-empt. He claimed that if Israel attacked Iran, he wouldn’t immediately smite the attacker.
Instead he said, uncharacteristically mildly, that “on that day” he and the other Hezbollah leaders would “sit, think and decide what we will do” before acting.
It was a ground-breaking moment: a less-than-belligerent statement from one of the most bloody-minded terrorist leaders, Nasrallah. Was he worried about Israeli power or was it, as someone suggested to me, another question of dignity; that for strategic if not humanitarian reasons he would not sacrifice his people or his country to slaughter for the sake of some Iranian enterprise. They weren’t just puppets.
Q. What about those Israeli submarines? Are they nuclear-armed? Would they go so far to use such nukes?
A. Almost everyone ignores the subs in this discussion. The BBC recently ran a map that purported to show the difficulty of an Israeli fighter bomber attack on Iran. Refueling problems, overflight problems, return-flight problems, and the like. What was surprising about the map was there was no submarine icon drawn on it in the waters around Iran. A submarine-launched cruise missile would be a far more efficient—though catastrophic—way of attacking that mountain at Fordow which is sheltering the key bomb-making capacity—uranium enrichment. And there have been reports of Israeli possession of nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.
Most people, including myself, express horror at the idea of Israel launching a nuclear attack, but the Israeli military ethicist Moshe Halbetal told me, unofficially, that he felt that the emotional memory of the Holocaust would be a strategic factor in the decision of whether to go nuclear first in the face of an existential threat. Go nuclear if the aim was to target weapons and military installations, not people, though he recognized noncombatants would die.
Israel has at least three “Dolphin”-class subs in service, each capable, according to some reports, of launching nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. Two or possibly three are being built in the German shipyard at Kiel, the new ones believed to be ballistic-missile long-range capable. Subs are Israel’s prime second-strike capability. Questions have been raised about their refueling capacity, surfacing, and basing, especially now that—given the transition of power in Egypt—the Suez Canal may no longer be a reliable link. (The last public transit of Suez by an Israeli craft was in 2010, before the Arab Spring uprising.) Are they still out there? Their use could make all the difference.
According to one of my sources, “It’s been reported (but not substantiated) that there was a test of a sub-fired nuclear-capable cruise missile that hit a target 900 miles away: Haifa [Israel’s official sub base] is about 620 miles from the Iranian border.”
Make of that what you will. The capability looks to be there. Is there the will? Is there the emotion?
Q. What did Grand Ayatollah Khamenei mean when he called “nuclear weapons a grave sin” earlier this year?
This seems to me to be an underappreciated development, although I’ve been told he has said it before. But to choose this moment to say it? Perhaps the grand leader of Iran is preparing to back down from the nuke project (and to submit to the humiliating international inspections that would follow, since no one would trust their word alone anymore). Or perhaps he plans to claim there never was one because Iran would never commit the "grave sin" Israel has committed.
Or perhaps he is using some kind of sophistry to keep up the denial: “a grave sin,” but sometimes when those who possess sinful means threaten to use them, you must descend to their level.
Who can read what’s in his heart? And yet what’s in his heart may determine the future of the planet.
Q. Why should we trust any intelligence on the subject?
A. We shouldn’t. We shouldn’t trust anything, especially anything coming from the U.S. intelligence community, which is now caught in a 12-year cycle of overreacting emotionally to its past mistakes (and as a result skewing its estimates politically), and which has basically gotten everything wrong on the most urgent questions.
It failed to prevent 9/11 because it underestimated intelligence that might have made it possible to stop its perpetrators. It then overestimated the threat of WMDs in Iraq for an undetermined mixture of political and bureaucratic reasons. It then proceeded to swing the pendulum the other way on Iran in the now notorious 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, which allowed the world to believe grievously understated Iranian aims with regard to its nuclear program. And now, if you believe the International Atomic Energy Agency, U.S. intelligence continues to underestimate Iranian intentions and capabilities. Intentions and capabilities of course are the province of emotion. Often, as much as intelligence.
The story of the 2007 NIE deserves recapitulating because its misconstrual by the media, enabled, it seems, by nameless bureaucrats in the intelligence realm who made either an inadvertent or a deliberate error, has helped exacerbate the crisis we face now.
World opinion on the need to do anything about the Iranian bomb program relaxed after the 2007 NIE on Iran came out. Its press release concluded that Iran had halted its “nuclear weapons program,” though was "keeping its options open" for some unspecified future.
But as intelligence chiefs later strenuously made clear (most explicitly in a 2008 background briefing for national security reporters whose transcript I reprint in my book), the NIE’s classified contents claimed only that the Iranians abandoned one aspect of their nuclear program, not the whole program. (The three aspects of a nuclear weapons program are: obtaining the bomb-grade uranium or plutonium fuel; finding a way to fit it into an implosion triggered device for your warhead; and, finally, building a ballistic missile to deliver it long distances.)
And so the world lost five years before the International Atomic Energy Agency refuted the mistaken press release language by accusing Iran of continuing an enrichment pace that could only have military goals—and now it’s too late. Think what could have been accomplished if we put the tough sanctions we have now in place five years ago, when it might have meant something.
In fact, the actual text of the 2007 NIE (as opposed to its press release—the ignoramus or malefactor who wrote it hasn’t been identified, nor have his motives) claimed that the only aspect the Iranians had stopped was their warhead work, and that it had continued the enrichment of uranium fuel that would bring it closer to a bomb. And when you think about it, the other two aspects are the least necessary, because a compact warhead is not a prerequisite if you’re thinking truck bomb or container ship rather than missile.
The only thing absolutely necessary for destructive capacity is bomb-grade nuclear fuel. I know from personal communications with the national security reporters for the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal that they—and many journalists—are aware of the 2007 NIE’s misconstrual. I heard the head of the U.S. intelligence community, Mike McConnell, discuss it at a dinner I attended in 2008. But there are still some reporters, pundits, and bloggers who cling to the 2007 press release language in their Pollyannaish world.
And now the denialists inside and outside the intelligence community have retreated to saying that Iran “hasn’t made the decision” to produce a bomb yet. Weasel words that could well mean they have acquired all the components necessary, they just haven’t given the order for final assembly—which could be a matter of weeks.
And thus the world lost its last slim chance—those five years in which sanctions and other means might have made a difference. It’s too late now. I know this will sound emotional, but face it: There are no solutions, at least none I see. No good solutions.
Only the potential for a final solution.
Video Explainer: Can a Missile Attack on a Nuclear Facility Create a Nuclear Explosion?
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.