Anthony Cordesman may be the most influential man in Washington that most people have never heard of. A former director of intelligence assessment for the secretary of defense and director of policy and planning in the Department of Energy, he is now the top strategic guru at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.
Most serious politicians and journalists have for some years based their analyses of the Iraq war and its aftermath on his universally respected research. Cordesman is a facts man who likes and reveres good data and cool, clinical analysis as the keystones of policymaking.
He has now turned his laser-like research and forensic intelligence skills to studying the real implication of the endless diplomatic minuet at the United Nations over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. In the real world, this matters mainly because an Iranian nuclear capability would transform the power balance in the wider Middle East, and leave the region and the rest of us living under the constant prospect of a nuclear exchange between Iran and Israel.
This would mean, Cordesman suggests, some 16 million to 28 million Iranians dead within 21 days, and between 200,000 and 800,000 Israelis dead within the same time frame. The total of deaths beyond 21 days could rise very much higher, depending on civil defense and public health facilities, where Israel has a major advantage.
It is theoretically possible that the Israeli state, economy and organized society might just survive such an almost-mortal blow. Iran would not survive as an organized society. “Iranian recovery is not possible in the normal sense of the term,” Cordesman notes.
The difference in the death tolls is largely because Israel is believed to have more nuclear weapons of very much higher yield (some of 1 megaton), and Israel is deploying the Arrow advanced anti-missile system in addition to its Patriot batteries. Fewer Iranian weapons would get through.
The difference in yield matters. The biggest bomb that Iran is expected to have is 100 kilotons, which can inflict third-degree burns on exposed flesh at 8 miles; Israel’s 1-megaton bombs can inflict third-degree burns at 24 miles. Moreover, the radiation fallout from an airburst of such a 1-megaton bomb can kill unsheltered people at up to 80 miles within 18 hours as the radiation plume drifts. (Jordan, by the way, would suffer severe radiation damage from an Iranian strike on Tel Aviv.)
Cordesman assumes that Iran, with less than 30 nuclear warheads in the period after 2010, would aim for the main population centers of Tel Aviv and Haifa, while Israel would have more than 200 warheads and far better delivery systems, including cruise missiles launched from its 3 Dolphin-class submarines.
The assumption is that Israel would be going for Iran’s nuclear development centers in Tehran, Natanz, Ardekan, Saghand, Gashin, Bushehr, Aral, Isfahan and Lashkar A’bad. Israel would also likely target the main population centers of Tehran, Tabriz, Qazvin, Isfahan, Shiraz, Yazd, Kerman, Qom, Ahwaz and Kermanshah. Cordesman points out that the city of Tehran, with a population of 15 million in its metropolitan area, is “a topographic basin with mountain reflector. Nearly ideal nuclear killing ground.”
But it does not end there. Cordesman points out that Israel would need to keep a “reserve strike capability to ensure no other power can capitalize on Iranian strike.” This means Israel would have to target “key Arab neighbors” – in particular Syria and Egypt.
Cordesman notes that Israel would have various options, including a limited nuclear strike on the region mainly inhabited by the Alawite minority from which come the ruling Assad dynasty. A full-scale Israeli attack on Syria would kill up to 18 million people within 21 days; Syrian recovery would not be possible. A Syrian attack with all its reputed chemical and biological warfare assets could kill up to 800,000 Israelis, but Israeli society would recover.
An Israeli attack on Egypt would likely strike at the main population centers of Cairo, Alexandria, Damietta, Port Said, Suez, Luxor and Aswan. Cordesman does not give a death toll here, but it would certainly be in the tens of millions. It would also destroy the Suez Canal and almost certainly destroy the Aswan Dam, sending monstrous floods down the Nile to sweep away the glowing rubble. It would mean the end of Egypt as a functioning society.
Cordesman also lists the oilwells, refineries and ports along the Gulf that could also be targets in the event of a mass nuclear response by an Israel convinced that it was being dealt a potentially mortal blow. Being contained within the region, such a nuclear exchange might not be Armageddon for the human race; it would certainly be Armageddon for the global economy.
So in clear, concise and chillingly forensic style, Cordesman spells out that the real stakes in the crisis that is building over Iran’s nuclear ambitions would certainly include the end of Persian civilization, quite probably the end of Egyptian civilization, and the end of the Oil Age. This would also mean the end of globalization and the extraordinary accretions in world trade and growth and prosperity that are hauling hundreds of millions of Chinese and Indians and others out of poverty.
Cordesman concludes his chilling but dismayingly logical survey with the warning: “The only way to win is not to play.”