John Burroughs

In a stunning article, “The Iran Plans,” to appear in the April 17 New Yorker, Seymour Hersh reports that the Bush administration has intensified planning for bombing Iran; that it is giving serious attention to the option of using nuclear weapons to attack buried targets; and that U.S. combat troops are already in Iran preparing for military operations and recruiting local supporters from minority groups. As a whole, the article conveys that the administration is prepared to launch an attack should Iran not accede to U.S. demands, above all not to proceed with uranium enrichment activities. But the potential conflict goes beyond that: the administration seems committed to regime change regardless of whether the nuclear issues are capable of resolution (which they probably are, given any willingness to compromise on Washington’s part).

If executed, U.S. military action would apply the Bush doctrine of preventive war in an unprecedented way that would set the template for years or decades of regional and global violence, unrestrained by law. While the doctrine was a pretext for the Iraq invasion, that lawless action could at least be seen as a continuation of hostilities going back to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. U.S. use of nuclear weapons against Iran would be an atrocious act violating the existing near taboo that has held since U.S. devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That would in turn make it far more likely that the weapons will be used elsewhere as well–including against American cities.

The abhorrent consequences of military action, and of possible nuclear use, are referred to in the Hersh article and elsewhere. But it’s worth dwelling on issues relating to international law constraints that receive far too little attention in the United States (for example, they go unmentioned by Hersh).

First, as Andy Lichterman explained in a recent post, an attack on Iran would be an act of aggression, barred by the UN Charter and prosecuted at Nuremberg. That is, it would be aggression unless authorized by the Security Council or in response to an Iranian attack. (For in-depth analysis, see the piece I co-authored in Human Rights, and Peter Weiss’s presentation to the New York session of the World Tribunal on Iraq.) The Security Council, however, may not even be able to agree on a resolution requiring Iran to cease enrichment-related activities, let alone a resolution imposing sanctions. The Council barely was able to agree on the recent non-binding presidential statement, given Russian and Chinese reluctance to engage in a confrontational course. Absent some very major change in circumstances, a resolution authorizing force is out of the question.

Second, as I explained in a 2003 paper, a U.S. nuclear attack on Iranian nuclear facilities would violate international law requirements of necessity, proportionality, and discrimination acknowledged by the United States and affirmed by the International Court of Justice in its advisory opinion on nuclear weapons. The Court put the principle of discrimination, which it described as “fundamental” and “intransgressible,” as follows: “States must never make civilians the object of attack and must consequently never use weapons that are incapable of distinguishing between civilian and military targets.” (emphasis added) Given the blast, heat and widespread radiation effects of an attack–the spread of radiation is elevated by an underground explosion by an earth penetrator–that requirement cannot be met.

As David Ruppe reported, at a March 2, 2005 Congressional hearing, Rep. Tauscher asked Linton Brooks, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, “Is there any way an RNEP [robust nuclear earth penetrator] of any size that we would drop will not produce a huge amount of radioactive debris?”. Brooks’ reply: “No, there’s not.”

Physicians for Social Responsibility modeled an attack on the underground Isfahan nuclear material storage facility in Iran with a 1.2 megaton (1200 kilotons) B83 bomb modified for earth penetration (one of the RNEP possibilities), and found that over three million people would die within 48 hours. RNEP has now been (publicly at least) terminated. While the yield of the bomb used in the PSR study is far bigger than that of a bomb likely to be actually used, it still illustrates that casualties could be very large, as when an attack is in or near an urban center. A nuclear strike now would likely use the existing penetrator bomb, the B-61-11, a modification deployed by the Clinton administration in 1997 with little public debate. It is believed to have a dial-a-yield capability from 300 tons to 300 kilotons. The Hiroshima bomb was around 12 kilotons.

A use of nuclear weapons indeed would be a criminal act, violating among other law the war crimes provisions and possibly the crimes against humanity provisions of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (see pp. 26-27 of a recent briefing paper I did for Greenpeace International). As also discussed in the briefing paper (p. 30), it’s harder to establish the illegality of a threat of use of nuclear weapons, since they are conveyed indirectly, and/or are stated in general policy documents, and/or are not connected to concrete situations. But one of the things that caught my eye in the Hersh article was this:

American Naval tactical aircraft, operating from carriers in the Arabian Sea, have been flying simulated nuclear-weapons delivery missions–rapid ascending maneuvers known as “over the shoulder” bombing–since last summer, the former official said, within range of Iranian coastal radars.

If this is an accurate report, combine 1) the simulated nuclear attacks with 2) the March 2006 National Security Strategy highlighting the alleged threat presented by Iran and restating the doctrine of preventive war, 3) the Nuclear Posture Review and other U.S. documents stating an option of use of nuclear weapons against WMD capabilities, and 4) the U.S. demand that Iran cease enrichment activities, and you have all the elements of an illegal threat: if Iran does not comply with the U.S. demand, the United States will resort to nuclear weapons.

For a longtime anti-nuclear activist like myself, the shocking thing about the Hersh article is not that the military has prepared options for use of nuclear weapons (this was done, for example, prior to the Iraq war, as William Arkin reported ), but rather that it’s being given serious attention in the Bush administration. For example, Hersh writes that:

The Pentagon adviser on the war on terror confirmed that some in the Administration were looking seriously at this option, which he linked to a resurgence of interest in tactical nuclear weapons among Pentagon civilians and in policy circles. He called it “a juggernaut that has to be stopped.” He also confirmed that some senior officers and officials were considering resigning over the issue.

[UPDATE, April 9: In a long article examining development of options for air strikes against Iran, the Washington Post did not refer to Hersh’s reporting about planning for nuclear use, but did include this:

Pentagon planners are studying how to penetrate eight-foot-deep targets and are contemplating tactical nuclear devices. The Natanz facility consists of more than two dozen buildings, including two huge underground halls built with six-foot walls and supposedly protected by two concrete roofs with sand and rocks in between, according to Edward N. Luttwak, a specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“The targeteers honestly keep coming back and saying it will require nuclear penetrator munitions to take out those tunnels,” said Kenneth M. Pollack, a former CIA analyst. “Could we do it with conventional munitions? Possibly. But it’s going to be very difficult to do.”

The New York Times ran a story directly challenging Hersh’s reporting:

But four Pentagon, military and administration officials who participate in high-level deliberations on Iran and who were granted anonymity to speak candidly rejected the article’s contention that the Bush administration was considering nuclear weapons in a possible strike against Iran.

“I’ve never heard the issue of nukes taken off or put on the table,” a senior Pentagon official said.

Given the specificity of Hersh’s sources regarding dissension within the Joint Chiefs and the Post’s corroboration regarding development of options for use of nuclear penetrators, the Times story is less than convincing.]

In a previous post, I argued that the risk of nuclear use against Iran (absent some extraordinary circumstance arising in the course of an ongoing war) was being overstated in activist circles. Clearly I was wrong. The options being considered are for use of nuclear weapons in order to strike targets difficult to destroy by non-nuclear means. In other words, the options are for integration of nuclear use with other military operations as part of the initial attack. I underestimated how far things have changed in Washington since the Bush administration came in and the September 11 attacks (though in assessing the risk of nuclear use I did tell French peace activists recently, “who would have believed 10 years ago that torture would be official U.S. policy and hundreds of people would be detained indefinitely, without trials, at Guantanamo?”).

Here’s a place where the interests of the anti-war movement and members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff converge. Hersh reports that “the Joint Chiefs had agreed to give President Bush a formal recommendation stating that they are strongly opposed to considering the nuclear option for Iran.” We’re strongly opposed too. In fact we’re strongly opposed to waging war on Iran period (and we should stay strongly opposed even if evidence comes out, as it has not so far, that Iran is definitely committed to acquiring nuclear arms).