Costs of War on Iran: A Systematic Disregard for Human Life

There is something of a consensus forming around the conclusion that a preventive US and/or Israeli attack on Iran (for a nuclear weapons program it doesn’t have) is the wrong thing to do. Last night former Defense Secretary Robert Gates spoke at an event warning “the results of an American or Israeli military strike on Iran could, in my view, prove catastrophic.” He said “such an attack would make a nuclear-armed Iran inevitable,” disrupt world oil traffic in the Persian Gulf, and prompt a wave of terrorism across the region, “haunting us for generations in that part of the world.”

It’s notable enough that a veteran of the Washington military and intelligence establishment like Gates speaks this publicly and vociferously against a war on Iran. But he’s not alone. A report released last month by former government officials, national security experts and retired military officers concluded also that an attack would motivate Iran to restart its weapons development, and that the ensuing war would end up being “more taxing than the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.”

The Obama administration too – terrible as their economic sanctions and militaristic postures are towards Iran – has been adamantly against going to war, at least right now. America’s top military official, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey, reiterated last month that the US would not be “complicit” in an Israeli strike, which he also explained would be counterproductive. Israeli press reports came out around the same time claiming the Obama administration sent a surreptitious message to Iran promising not to back an Israeli strike, as long as Tehran refrains from attacking American assets in the Persian Gulf.

Even leading figures in Washington who reliably monger for war and regime change in the Middle East, have quieted their battle trumpets as of late, subdued from the fever pitch they reached a matter of months ago. It is clear that the tactical, strategic, and financial costs of a discretionary war on Iran have turned the tide against war (again, at least for now).

In all of the massive commentary in establishment foreign policy circles that has come out on the Iran issue as of late, however, very little focuses on the immense human costs a war on Iran would entail. According to a new report that tries to estimate this, the number of immediate casualties that would result from bombing Iran’s top four enrichment sites would be would be about 5,000 people. “If the bombing would include more than those four sites,” says the study from the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, “then the immediate casualty would be up to 10,000 people.”

What about casualties that are not immediate? Even if a US or Israeli strike only targeted Iran’s nuclear sites and it didn’t result in larger land war (unlikely), the toxic plumes released as a result of the strikes could kill or injure up to 70,000 civilians in nearby cities and towns. “People’s  skin could be burnt, they could become blind, their lungs could be destroyed, their kidneys could be damaged, and in the future they could face other health problems such as skin cancer and [other forms] of cancer,” according to the author of the report.

According to a 2009 study by the Center for International and Strategic Studies “any strike on the Bushehr nuclear reactor will cause the immediate death of thousands of people living in or adjacent to the site, and thousands of subsequent cancer deaths or even up to hundreds of thousands depending on the population density along the contamination plume.” Even civilians in neighboring countries would be effected: “Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates will be heavily affected by the radionuclides.”

The casualty estimates go much higher when the aftermath, or retaliation, to the aggressors’ strikes is taken into consideration. A declassified war simulation run by the Pentagon earlier this year forecasted that the “wider regional war” and Iranian retaliation that would likely result from an attack would immediately get at least 200 Americans deployed in the region killed. The RAND Corp. thinks that Iran would also turn to unconventional military tactics – they call it “terrorism” – in response, which would put even more innocent lives at risk. Almost every official estimate – and common sense, considering America’s recent experiences in Iraq – concludes that an all out war in Iran would result in a strong insurgency and possible a descent into civil war, which has the potential to kill hundreds of thousands.

This has not been a commonly cited reason for avoiding an unnecessary war with Iran. It’s encouraging that so much of official Washington is decidedly against war for the tactical and strategic costs, but these human costs are systematically overlooked in the vast majority of the analysis. It’s what John Tirman, professor at MIT, calls “collective autism” about the costs of war. Americans who are either supportive or ambivalent about war on Iran – or for that matter Iraq, Afghanistan, and beyond – are like all people suffering from the delusions of nationalism. When it’s the other guy being bludgeoned, they can’t summon the regard they’d have for hundreds of thousands of Americans being killed because an international bully attacked us without provocation.