- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 7, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

The Islamic Republic of Iran is on the verge of producing a nuclear weapon. It already is spinning enough centrifuges and has nuclear facilities spread out in such a way as to infer a weapons-production program.

Iran’s ties to terrorist organizations such as the Lebanese-based Shi’ite group Hezbollah make it a unique and even more dangerous threat where nuclear weapons are concerned. Below are two very possible scenarios - the first more possible than the second - that could occur in the wake of Iran’s procuring a nuclear weapon.

c Iran could effectively give carte blanche to its terror proxies, allowing them to increase activity to the utmost intensity against Western interests. The West would be deterred from destroying said proxies because Iran could threaten the nuclear option, pulling a very Khruschchev-esque gamble in questioning extended U.S. deterrence over Iraq. Only Israel’s official proclamation of its nuclear program perceivably could stop this, though it would increase exponentially the possibility of a regional arms race, as neighboring states would see two non-Sunni countries with the deadliest weapon on Earth and want one of their own.

Such a regional arms race would drastically increase the risk that a nuclear weapon would fall into the wrong hands. If the United States thought the threat of Pakistani nuclear weapons in the wrong hands was a problem, imagine adding Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to that list.

c The second of these scenarios is the much more worrisome. If Iran gets a nuclear weapon and uses it - most likely against Israel, as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been blustering about for some time - the Middle East as a region would begin a very fast, very violent death spiral. Any Iranian weapon most likely would be in the tens-of-kilotons range, and an air burst over Tel Aviv would produce casualties in the hundreds-of-thousands or possibly even 1 million range.

And despite Israel’s advanced Arrow-2 anti-ballistic-missile defense, all it takes is one successful Iranian nuclear ballistic missile penetrating the system to cause a cataclysm. But unlike the United States during the Cold War, Israel does not have the luxury of flexible response, meaning “limited” nuclear strikes on an opponent as a caution against - though first step toward - greater escalation, because the percentage of Israel’s population that would be devastated in just one nuclear explosion, over Tel Aviv for example, is about the same percentage of casualties the United States estimated it would incur from a general Soviet strike during the Cold War.

According to the Federation of American Scientists, Israel has an estimated 100 to 200 nuclear weapons (though most likely closer to the 100 mark), about 10 percent of which are thermonuclear.

Anthony H. Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says an Israel weakened so terribly by a Hiroshima-sized weapon would launch a thermonuclear weapon at Tehran.The Iranian capital contains about 20 percent of Iran’s population and is in a “topographic basin with mountain reflector,” making it a “nearly ideal nuclear killing ground,” he says.Mr. Cordesman also predicts Israel would launch fission as well as fusion nuclear weapons at other Iranian cities and also would have to destroy nearby cities in Arab states: The Jewish state would anticipate military defeat in the moment of its weakness by hostile Arab neighbors. Damascus and Beirut undoubtedly would be targets for a pre-emptive attack. But other targets of necessity would include Egypt, Saudi Arabia and much of the rest of the Arabian Peninsula, possibly much of North Africa and quite likely Jordan.

In a strange twist of fate, only Iraq, for so many years a mortal enemy of Israel, would be saved, thanks to the U.S. presence there. And in an even more ironic twist of fate, according to Mr. Cordesman, Israeli recovery is “theoretically possible,” while “Iranian recovery [is] not possible in normal sense of term.”

A regional nuclear conflagration must be avoided at all costs. But let not the first scenario go overlooked: Terrorist groups with a nuclear deterrent backing them would be a threat of historic proportions. Counterterrorist operations would have to be halted, perhaps even scrapped altogether, if Iran backed any potential target group, even beyond Hezbollah.

While diplomatic means are preferable, these catastrophic, perhaps even doomsday, scenarios illustrate why the United States must be ready to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program by any (nonnuclear) means necessary before Iran produces a weapon.

Zachary S. Simms is a graduate student with Missouri State University’s Defense and Strategic Studies program.

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