Consequences of an Attack on Iran are No Joke
By Marsha B. Cohen
March 1, 2012
A grim joke made the rounds in late 2002 and early
2003, in the lead-up to the US invasion of Iraq. The
version I recall went something like this:
President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick
Cheney go into a Texas bar. Over a couple of beers
they plan the invasion of Iraq, taking out Saddam
Hussein and taking control of Iraq's vast oil
reserves. The big question, though, is how
Americans might react to their starting another
war, with victory still elusive in Afghanistan.
They decide to do an impromptu sampling of public
opinion, and invite an average, all-American
looking guy standing at the bar to join them for a
"What would you think of us invading Iraq and
taking over their oil fields, if you knew that
30,000 Iraqis and one American bicycle mechanic
would be killed if we do it?" Bush asks.
The fellow slowly sips his beer, his brow furrowed.
He mulls the question and looks troubled. Finally
he asks, "Why should an American bicycle mechanic
have to die?"
Cheney slaps the table and grins triumphantly at
Bush. "I told you no one would give a damn about
the 30,000 Iraqis!"
A decade later, no one seems to give a damn about
Iranian lives either.
The U.S. legacy in Iraq
As we now know, far more than 30,000 Iraqis and one
American have died since the US invasion of Iraq on
March 19, 2003. The number of documented Iraqi civilian
deaths from violence since the onset of the "Second
Iraq War" now totals between 105,000-115,000, according
to the continuously updated Iraq Body Count database.
It also notes that according to the WikiLeaks Iraq war
logs, the figure may be 13,750 higher still. Official
Department of Defense statistics as of mid-December, as
compiled by Margaret Griffis at Antiwar.com, reveal
that 4484 members of the US military deaths and 1487
private military contractors have lost their lives
since the war began, as well as 319 "Coalition" troops,
348 journalists and 448 academics. Estimates of the
number of Americans wounded range from an official
count of 33,000 to estimates of over 100,000.
Iraqi physicians are seeing an upsurge in cancers and
birth defects, which they blame on the usage of
depleted uranium in the shells and bombs used by US and
British forces in the 1991 Iraq war and the 2003
invasion. An estimated 300 tons of depleted uranium
were used to attack Iraq in the First Gulf War.
Abdulhaq Al-Ani, co-author of Uranium in Iraq: The
Poisonous Legacy of the Iraq Wars, has been researching
the health effects of depleted uranium weaponry on
Iraq's civilian population since 1991 and explained in
an interview with Al Jazeera that the effects of
depleted uranium on the human body don't even begin to
manifest until 5-6 years after exposure. Al-Ani points
to a spike in Iraqi cancer rates in Iraq in 1996-1997
Dr. Ahmad Hardan, who has served as a special
scientific adviser to the World Health Organization,
the United Nations and the Iraqi Health Ministry, has
been monitoring the effects of depleted uranium
exposure on adults and children, which include multiple
cancers and serious birth defects. He told reporter
Lawrence Smallman that "Depleted uranium has a half
life of 4.7 billion years and that means thousands upon
thousands of Iraqi children will suffer for tens of
thousands of years to come." Leukemia has become the
third most common cancer throughout Iraq, with children
under 15 especially vulnerable. "This is what I call
terrorism," he said.
The BBC reports that babies born in Fallujah now have
13 times the rate of congenital heart deformities than
European-born infants. While visiting Iraq, World
Affairs editor John Simpson was told many times that
women in Fallujah have been advised not to bear
children. The director of the Afghan Depleted Uranium
and Recovery Fund, Dr. Daud Miraki, has found that
increasing numbers of infants in eastern and
southeastern Afghanistan are being born without eyes or
limbs, and have tumors protruding from their mouths and
eyes. The Pentagon denies any connection with the US
military's use of depleted uranium, even though (or
perhaps because) these same effects are endangering
veterans returning to the US from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Nevertheless, whether from the right, left or the
center, the potential "consequences" of military
strikes (a euphemism for war) against Iran are being
assessed almost exclusively on the basis of the
potential impact on Israel, the US and Europe: a spike
in the price of oil wreaking havoc in the global
economy-Hezbollah launching missile strikes from
Lebanon into Israel and carrying out acts of terrorism
against "soft western targets"-rather than the
disastrous consequences for Iran, its neighbors and the
One exception is a 114 page "Study on a Possible
Israeli Strike on Iran's Nuclear Development
Facilities," produced in 2009 for the Center for
International and Strategic Studies. It devotes all of
two pages (90-91) to the human and environmental human
catastrophe that would result just from an attack on
the Iranian nuclear power plant in Bushehr:
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.
The authors also warn that "Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE
will be heavily affected by the radionuclides." (Are
the Arab states of the Gulf who supposedly are so eager
for Israel to contain Iran's regional ambitions aware
The ever-smirking Israeli Minister of Defense, Ehud
Barak, has calculated that the casualties of a war with
Iran could be limited to fewer than 500. "There won't
be 100,000 dead, not 10,000 dead nor 1,000 dead. Israel
will not be destroyed," Barak said reassuringly during
a November radio interview quoted by the Washington
Post. "If everyone just goes into their houses, there
won't be 500 dead, either," he said.
Barak means Israelis. As for Iranians, who's counting?
The human cost of attacking Iran
No one is talking about the harm that "surgical air
strikes" against "suspected Iranian nuclear facilities"
with GBU-28 "bunker-buster" bombs, which derive their
ability to penetrate concrete and earth from depleted
uranium, would inflict on 74 million Iranians, nearly a
quarter of whom are under the age of 14 and under and
half of whom are under the age of 30. (Where are those
self-designated "pro-life" voices that should be
expressing outrage? Or does "the right to life"
evaporate as soon as a fetus exits the womb?)
No worries are being expressed about the release of
radioactive materials into the biosphere of Central
Asia (and by eventual extension, the entire earth). If
the depleted uranium in the bombs comes into contact
with radioactive nuclear materials present in the
targeted nuclear research sites-nearly all of which
operate under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
supervision-the potential for disaster would be
Israeli Military Intelligence Chief Major General Aviv
Kochavi grimly told the hawkish Herziliya Conference
recently that Iran possesses more than 4 tons of low-
grade enriched uranium as well as almost 100 kilograms
of uranium enriched at 20%. If true, is it really a
good idea to send these radioactive materials spewing
into the air and water of Central Asia and beyond? Is
it any wonder that Russia, China and India-all whom are
much closer geographically to Iran, as well as downwind
of the direction in which radiation and toxin-tainted
winds would initially blow-are the UN Security Council
members most opposed to attacking Iran?
Nor is anyone questioning the wisdom of dropping
unprecedented numbers of 5000 lb. "bunker busters"
capable of penetrating 100 feet of earth or 20 feet of
concrete into the bowels of an already earthquake-prone
region. No one seems to care about the irreparable and
uncontainable environmental damage that could be done
to miles of Iranian coastline: the adjacent Caspian Sea
to the north, the Arabian Sea to the south, and the
Persian Gulf to the west. What about the permanent
damage to the underground aquifers of Central Asia,
where water is already scarce? If fracking for natural
gas can render US drinking water flammable, imagine
what pounding some of the most plentiful natural gas
fields with bombs could do.
The unforeseeable consequences
Prognosticating the full extent of the damage that
could and would be inflicted upon Iran and upon
Iranians is difficult to impossible. No one outside of
top security circles can even guess the number of
targets of an Israeli and/or US attack (the BBC
suggests five in addition to Bushehr). Other variables
include the quantity or capacity of the weaponry that
would be employed, whether Israel plans on using
nuclear weapons, whether so-called "precision surgical
strikes" reached or missed their intended targets, all
of which would affect the scale of "collateral damage"
to human beings, infrastructure, homes and apartments,
schools, mosques and World Heritage sites as a
consequence of "bomb-bomb-bombing" Iran's suspected
nuclear research facilities.
Almost assuredly an attack on facilities buried deep
within the earth would utilize "bunker busting" guided
bomb units (GBUs) that gain their power to penetrate
from depleted uranium. The cost in lives, injuries, and
long-term dangers to the health of civilians, including
genetic damage to unborn future generations from toxins
and radioactive materials in the depleted uranium bombs
dropped and nuclear materials leaked is also
Is war worth it?
Contrary to misleading media reports, there is no
evidence that Iran is presently attempting or even
planning to build a bomb. But even if there were, an
Israeli and/or US attack would merely postpone its
development for a few years, and perhaps even spur and
speed up nuclear weapons research for deterrence.
Returning to public opinion polling, a recent Pew
Research Center telephone survey (Feb. 8-12) asked a
sampling of 1500 adults in all 50 states, "How much, if
anything, have you read or heard about the dispute over
Iran's nuclear program?"
38% said "A lot"
39% said "A little"
23% said "Nothing at all"
Yet asked whether it was more important "to prevent
Iran from developing nuclear weapons, even if it means
taking military action" or "to avoid a military
conflict with Iran even if it means they may develop
nuclear weapons," 30% of respondents prioritized
avoiding a military conflict, while 58% said military
action might be necessary (20% more than the number who
had said they "knew a lot" about the dispute over
Iran's nuclear program). This isn't a fluke: the same
Pew survey asking the same question of different
respondents Sept. 30-Oct. 4, 2009 found that only 41%
said they "knew a lot" while 61% would approve of
military action-the same 20% differential.
(In the most recent survey, respondents were also asked
whether the US should support or oppose an attack on
Iran by Israel "to stop its nuclear weapons program."
39% said the US should support Israeli military action,
5% said the US should oppose Israeli military action,
and just over half (51%) said the US should "stay
But what if the questions were framed differently? What
if the pollster were to ask, "Would you approve or
disapprove of Israel or the US delaying progress in
Iranian nuclear research (not necessarily in pursuit of
a nuclear weapon) by 3-5 years at most, by dropping
spent uranium bunker-busting bombs on a country of 74
million people, a quarter of them younger than 14, if
tens or even hundreds of thousands might die and
perhaps millions more might suffer from genetic damage
causing birth defects and cancers for generations to
And what if the follow-up question was, "If depleted
uranium bunker busters were unable to penetrate Iranian
underground facilities where nuclear research was
allegedly taking place, much of it under the
supervision of the IAEA, would you approve of Israel
using nuclear weapons that would magnify death and
destruction a hundredfold and result in what some might
call `a holocaust'"?
Frankly, I have no idea what the pro and con
percentages would be to questions asked in this way.
But it's time for the pollsters gauging public opinion
to speak more forthrightly about what the real
options-and the real consequences-of attacking Iran
are. They can start by shedding the sanitized
references to "military action" and "surgical strikes"
and calling them what they are-acts of war that will
inflict death and destruction on tens of thousands,
perhaps hundreds of thousands, of Iranians. Iranians
like the characters in the Oscar-winning film "A
Separation," who love their children and want the best
for them, who worry about their aging parents, who
struggle to make ends meet in the face of high
unemployment and economic stress. As the film's
director Asghar Farhadi stated in his acceptance speech
for 2011's Best Foreign Language Film:
At a time of talk of war, intimidation and
aggression is exchanged between politicians, the
name of their county, Iran, is spoken here through
her glorious culture, a rich and ancient culture
that has been hidden under the heavy dust of
Should that heavy dust be poisoned with toxic
radioactive contaminants from depleted uranium and
perhaps even nuclear fallout? War on Iran is no joke.
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