What Would an Israel-Iran Nuclear War Mean?

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What Would an Israel-Iran Nuclear War Mean?

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Iran and Israel have exchanged threats and counter threats regularly in recent years. The difference is that Iranian leaders threaten Israel with total annihilation and Israel usually responds by saying that it will take the necessary steps to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons—the existence of which would give Tehran the means to destroy the Jewish nation.

This latest news emerged from Shaul Mofaz, a former defense minister in the Israeli cabinet and one of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s deputies. He is privy to private defense plans in the Israeli government and is a participant in the security cabinet. He clearly stated, “If Iran continues with its programme for developing nuclear weapons, we will attack it” ( The Irish Times, June 7, 2008, emphasis added). He said these words to the Hebrew daily Yediot Aharonot.

In December 2001, then-Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani expressed the logic, as he saw it, of a nuclear attack on Israel—that such an attack would eliminate the Jewish state, but Israel in return could only temporarily set back the Islamic world. He believed it would be worth starting a war in which 15 million Muslims would die—since well over a billion would remain—if Israel would no longer exist.

But is such a calculation reasonable or close to accurate?

Anthony Cordesman, former director of intelligence assessment for the U.S. secretary of defense and currently a top analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, offers a different and profoundly disturbing view—that an Israel-Iran nuclear war would devastate the region and the entire world economy.

He believes that Israel, being a more advanced and organized society, could conceivably survive a nuclear exchange while losing 200,000 to 800,000 citizens within 21 days, but Iran would face 16 to 28 million dead in the same time frame and no longer survive as an organized society (United Press International, Nov. 22, 2007).

The difference, he points out, is that Israel is presumed to have better antimissile defenses and more warheads with vastly greater explosive yields (up to 10 times as powerful) with far more accurate delivery systems. He notes that the Iranian capital of Tehran, with its 15 million inhabitants packed into a basin surrounded by mountains, is a “nearly ideal nuclear killing ground.”

Israel, Cordesman says, would need a “reserve strike capability to ensure no other power can capitalize on an Iranian strike”—meaning Israel would have to target such “key Arab neighbors” as Syria and Egypt. While a Syrian attack on Israel with chemical and biological weapons could kill another 800,000 Israelis, an Israeli nuclear attack on Syria would kill up to 18 million and finish Syria as a nation. A similar attack on Egypt would kill tens of millions of Egyptians.

Other damage from such a war would include major population centers in the region, the Suez Canal, ports, refineries and oil-producing centers. While it would not be Armageddon for the human race, he says, it would be for the global economy, marking the end of the Oil Age, globalization and world economic growth and prosperity. “The only way to win is not to play,” he concludes.

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