The Catastrophic Consequences of a Nuclear Iran

Can anyone reasonably expect a newly-nuclear leadership in Tehran to be reliably rational?

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Louis René Beres is the author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and international law and is a professor at Purdue University.

"The comedy is finished." Now, after so many unpardonable years of deception and self-delusion concerning Iranian nuclear intentions, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has finally confirmed the worst. Its most recent report, urgent in tone, provides meaningful details on secret Iranian nuclear programs.

These efforts were vastly more ambitious than was previously believed. According to David Albright, a former IAEA official who reviewed the agency's findings, underlying IAEA intelligence also concludes that Iran can now "design and produce a workable implosion nuclear device." This device would use highly enriched uranium as its fissile core.

When selective preemptions against certain Iranian nuclear assets and infrastructures might still have been practicable, neither Israel nor the United States chose to exercise its lawful right of anticipatory self-defense. Now, barring an unlikely eleventh-hour defensive first-strike by Israel, Iran's entry into the Nuclear Club is a fait accompli. For Israel, the state most obviously threatened by these developments, all remaining self-defense options will necessarily be limited to interpenetrating plans for improved nuclear deterrence, and expanded active defense.

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Almost certainly, these inherently fallible programs will include an end to the country's longstanding policy of "deliberate nuclear ambiguity," and substantial additional deployments of both Arrow and Iron Dome missile interceptors.

Significantly, unlike the no-longer-viable preemption option, these defensive programs could come into play only after an Iranian nuclear force had already been deployed, or after an Iranian nuclear attack had already been launched.

Can anyone reasonably expect a newly-nuclear leadership in Tehran to be reliably rational? Exactly what could happen to Israel if pertinent Iranian leaders, endowed with offensive nuclear weapons, should, even on a single occasion, proceed to value certain presumed religious obligations more highly than their state's physical survival?

This core question must be raised in reference to all possible Iranian regimes, not only to the present Ahmadinejad government. Although counter-intuitive, regime change in Tehran could conceivably yield an increased likelihood of irrational decision-making.

Irrationality is not the same as madness. Even an irrational Iranian leadership could maintain a consistent and "transitive" hierarchy of preferences.

Enemy irrationality would likely be less dangerous for Israel than having to face a genuinely mad adversary. Still, it will not be Israel's option to decide which type of adversary it would prefer to face in Tehran,

[See a collection of political cartoons on Iran.]

Any Iranian leadership that slouches toward military conflict with the "Zionist Entity" could, sooner than had long been expected, initiate regional nuclear war. Deliberately or inadvertently, as a "bolt from the blue," or as a fully unintended result of escalation, whether out of an inexorable religious commitment to jihad against "unbelievers," or, for much more mundane reasons of miscalculation, accident, coup d'état, or command-control failure, a nuclear Tehran could ignite a real-world "Armageddon."

Thirty-two years ago, I published the first of 10 books that contained authoritative descriptions of the physical and medical consequences of nuclear war, any nuclear war. These descriptions were drawn largely from a still-valid 1975 report by the National Academy of Sciences, and included the following very tangible outcomes: large temperature changes; contamination of food and water; disease epidemics in crops, domesticated animals, and humans due to ionizing radiation; shortening of growing seasons; irreversible injuries to aquatic species; widespread and long-term cancers due to inhalation of plutonium particles; radiation-induced abnormalities in persons in utero at the time of detonations; a vast growth in the number of skin cancers, and increasing genetic disease.