The Ayatollah's Nuclear Gamble: the Human Cost of Military Strikes against Iran's Nuclear Facilities
Khosrow B. Semnani, author of “The Ayatollah’s Nuclear Gamble,” discussed his recent report on the potential impact of targeting Iranian nuclear facilities on surrounding population centers. Robert Litwak, Vice President for Scholars and Director of International Security Studies at the Wilson Center provided comments on the report.
On October 12, the Iran Task Force at the Atlantic Council and the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center hosted a meeting at the Atlantic Council on “The Ayatollah’s Nuclear Gamble: the Human Cost of Military Strikes against Iran’s Nuclear Facilities” with Khosrow Semnani and Robert Litwak. Barbara Slavin, Senior Fellow at the South Asia Center, Atlantic Council, and Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center moderated the event.
Semnani, saying that on nuclear issues “human costs and consequences have not received sufficient attention” in either the United States or Iran, approached the issue of a potential strike on Iran’s enrichment facilities through a humanitarian lens. He identified Isfahan, Natanz, Bushehr, and Arak as the sites most likely to have a devastating impact on nearby populations if attacked or subject to natural disaster. Semnani discussed the various factors that can affect the number of potential casualties, defined to include those severely injured or subject to radiation poisoning. In particular, the strategic intent – whether to strike once or many times – and the amount of on-site toxic reserves would play a significant role. By these and other variables, Semnani determined that the conversion facility in Isfahan faced the “most critical” threat, as it has the most on-site reserves of uranium hexafluoride and the closest proximity to a major urban center. By conservative estimates that one percent of toxins are released into the atmosphere and only five percent of people exposed to these toxins suffer consequences, a strike on the Isfahan facility would have at least five thousand casualties; more liberal estimates produce a casualty number closer to 80,000. Though the Isfahan conversion facility, being near a major city, would be “difficult to destroy,” attacks on other sites would also yield several thousand casualties each. In a worst-case scenario, fallout would get into the water table, contaminating much of Iran’s drinking water. Addressing comparisons to the 1981 attack on the Iraqi Osirak reactor, Semnani stressed that by contrast Iran’s program is “not an empty shell,” as Iraq’s was at the time, but that facilities in Iran are “hot sites” with full-time workers and chemical reserves. Semnani also pointed out Iran’s weak civil defenses in the event of strike on nuclear facilities, in particular insufficient local hospital capacities and poor hazard management. He concluded his presentation by saying that “the Iranian people lack an effective role in the nuclear debate,” and need to be informed of the dangers of having “hot” nuclear facilities nearby.
Litwak praised the report for its “contribution to our public policy debate” in providing more context to debates about whether military strikes should be “on the table” regarding Iran and nuclear policy. In addition to the humanitarian concerns outlined by Semnani, Litwak noted the liabilities an attack on Iran’s facilities would pose for the US: it would likely set back the nuclear program but not end it, would provoke a “general nationalist backlash” in Iran, and “could well escalate to a regional war.” Despite the various reasons for not launching a strike against Iran, Litwak felt also that the US may keep the military option discussed as a “hedge” in its effort to negotiate with or contain Iran.
In the general discussion, panelists talked about the necessity of making sure military options remain selective to minimize casualties, prospects for a Persian translation of the report that could help prompt an informed discussion of policy and risks within Iran, and the possibility that Iran has deliberately built major nuclear facilities near cities to discourage attacks.
By Laura Rostad, Middle East Program
Author, "The Ayatollah's Nuclear Gamble"
Haleh Esfandiari // Director Emerita, Middle East Program