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Persian Letters

Study Claims Thousands Would Die In Attack On Iran Nuclear Sites

Iranian students form a human chain around the uranium-conversion facility in Isfahan to show their support for Iran's nuclear program in November 2011.
Iranian students form a human chain around the uranium-conversion facility in Isfahan to show their support for Iran's nuclear program in November 2011.
Maryam sometimes thinks about what would happen if there were a military attack on her city's uranium-conversion facility.

The plant lies on the outskirts of Isfahan, the historical city that she calls home.

"It scares me, of course, even though I don't have any information about the likely impact on people like us," says the 55-year-old.

Now a new report is trying to answer that question.

It lists the Isfahan uranium-conversion facility -- which contains an estimated 371 metric tons of uranium hexafluoride -- as one of the four Iranian sites likely to be targeted if Israel or the United States were to decide to take military action in an effort to delay or cripple Iran's nuclear program.

The University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics and the NGO Omid for Iran teamed up to produce a study that concludes that a military strike on the facility could have tragic consequences for Maryam and thousands of other residents of her centrally located city, which has a population of 2 million.

It's unlikely that Maryam would die as an immediate result of such a bomb attack. But she could be among the estimated up-to-70,000 people who would be killed or injured after being exposed to toxic plumes released as the result of such strikes. They would reach the city within an hour.

Such a scenario would mean that the people of Isfahan could experience a catastrophe similar to the gas leak in Bhopal or the nuclear meltdown at Chornobyl, says Khosrow Semnani, the author of the report, which is titled, "The Ayatollah's Nuclear Gamble."

"People's  skin could be burnt [when coming in contact with the plumes], they could become blind, their lung could be destroyed, their kidneys could be damaged, and in the future they could face other health problems such as skin cancer and [other forms] of cancer," Semnani says.

The report analyzed the impact of preemptive conventional strikes on four key nuclear sites: Isfahan's uranium conversion facility; Natanz's fuel-enrichment plant; Arak's heavy-water plant; and Bushehr's nuclear power plant.

Workers at those sites -- who include scientists, workers, support staff, and soldiers -- would be among the first victims of a bombing campaign. The report estimates that the casualty rate at the sites would be close to 100 percent.

"According to our estimates, the number of casualties of the bombing of the four sites would be about 5,000 people," Semnani says. "If the bombing would include more than those four sites, then the immediate casualty [count] would be up to 10,000 people."

The report warns that the grim scenario could be magnified by the lack of readiness on the part of Iranian authorities, who have a poor record of disaster management and who lack the capacity to handle deadly radioactive fallout in the aftermath of a strike on its nuclear sites.

Afshin Molavi, an Iran expert and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, says the study fills a gaping vacuum in Western discussions about military strikes on Iran, which often ignore the human cost of such actions.

"People talk very callously about the prospect of military strikes, and they frame it in the geopolitical fallout, the geo-economic fallout, what will happen to the oil price and all of these issues. But nobody has ever talked about the humanitarian consequences of a military strike on Iran," Molavi says. "Those humanitarian consequences are grave, so I think this report fills a very important vacuum. It needs to be read by policy makers at the highest levels in Western governments; it needs to be read in Israel; it needs to be read all over the world."

Greg Thielman, a former senior U.S. intelligence official and an expert with the Arms Control Association, says the study is a worthwhile exploration that gives color to "a very dry and bloodless discussion of what attacking Iran would be."

He does say, however, that he doesn't think the United States or Israel would attack Bushehr, because it's not of critical concern to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) -- the UN nuclear watchdog that has access to the site.

"I would note also that it is against the Geneva Convention to attack civilian nuclear power plants," Thielman says, "and that's another reason why I think the U.S. and Israel would think twice about it, because it is clearly contrary to international law to do that."

David Albright, a former UN weapons inspector and the president of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) in Washington, says he doesn't believe that a military attack on Bushehr is likely.

He says the number of casualties would depend on how the attacks are planned and conducted: "If they attack all the [conversion lines] -- you have six in Isfahan and you'd expect more -- they may not attack and they choose to cripple the site without trying to destroy the uranium hexafluoride."

The human cost of a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities hasn't been ignored by Western analysts alone. It's also not a topic of discussion in Iran, where the state media largely focus on how the country would retaliate in case of attack.

"Ninety-nine percent of these people are not even aware of the horrifying scenario" that could await them, Semnani says.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari
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Comment Sorting
Comments page of 2
by: Droog from: Coboconk
October 02, 2012 20:09
If this is the real issue, then the Iranian Gov't should have never taken this to the brink. They have left the rest of the world with little choice but to act to stop the potential genocide of millions. Unfortunately, the Mullahs care little for their own people and see them as cannon fodder.
In Response

by: Nick from: UK
October 03, 2012 16:45
It's America and Israel that have caused this. The Iranian civilian program is 100% legal. Any attack will be illegal and inhumane, but I expect that will bother nobody in Western government, just the citizens of 90% of the world.
In Response

by: Aleitha from: Canada
October 03, 2012 23:21
You are kidding me. When did Israel commit mass murder on its citizens engaged in non-violent process? The last Iranian election stolen is what the world looks to.
In Response

by: Giuliano from: Brazil
October 05, 2012 16:50
"When did Israel commit mass murder on its citizens engaged in non-violent process?" Oh, of course, 'cause it's okay to go and massacre anyone as long as they're not "our" citizens, right? And yes, Droog talks about it as if Iran was the one murdering American scientists and killing Iranian citizens through absurd sanctions...

One should not forget the role played by the U.S. in engineering the Iran-Iraq war. And while we're down the history path, it only takes a cursory look to both Israel and Iran to see who the real aggressor is. Iran has a history of over 200 years of never having attacked another country, never having started a conflict. Israel, on the other hand, has been founded on injustice and aggression, has invaded Lebanon twice (and got their asses kicked by Hizbollah twice, which makes one wonder how they'd fare against a real army) and is a war criminal "country" as noted by Amnesty International and the U.N.
In Response

by: JG from: USA
October 03, 2012 17:05
The US (and Israel) is who have taken "it to the brink".

Iran is 100% compliance with all international nuclear treaties with regard to enrichment and use of nuclear materials.

It is a violation of those same treaties to do what the US and Israel are threatening to do. It is an unjustified act of aggression and war (in violation exactly as at Nuremberg).

Maybe you don't think the rule of law matters. Maybe you do think international laws and agreements are worth abiding by. It is ONLY the US who is violating or risking violation of these these laws and treaties.
In Response

by: weasel5i2 from: USA
October 03, 2012 19:27
Iran is even considering leaving the Non-Proliferation Treaty, because they are not being allowed to do peaceful enrichment activities, which the NPT specifically allows. So, it is a double-standard, the NPT which disallows nuclear weapons development, but allows peaceful development,

neither of which they are being allowed to do! I don't blame them for considering removing themselves as an NPT signatory.

It should be noted that Israel isn't a signatory member, and never has been. Hypocrisy much, Israel? >_<
In Response

by: Anonymous
October 03, 2012 18:25
No one dares to attack Iran. The threats are as empty and pure propaganda. If Iran is attacked, Iranians will unite around their government and will revenge. Israel will attack, if only it thinks Iran cannot strike back, the way it bombard suspected Iraqi and Syrian nuclear sights. Don’t worry, be happy.

by: Seán Ó Maoildeirg from: Éire
October 02, 2012 20:14
How can any sane, rational, civilized American or Israeli human being justify committing such a horrenduous crime against humanity. If such a crime were committed by one person against another the penalty would be a death sentence for the guilty party. I this scenario the death penalty would have to imposed on the US and Israel. Both of those countries would have to be disarmed for the good of all mankind.
In Response

by: William from: Aragon
October 02, 2012 23:07
Sean, agreed - and that is the position the UN should be stating. Otherwise, Israel and the US would be acting no differently to the way Germany did in 1939, which was judged as a crime against humanity.
In Response

by: Ivan from: California
October 03, 2012 02:49
And you sit back and watch the Iranians support Assad slaughter tens of thousands of civilians. Are you calling for the death penalty for him? What if he brings out chemical weapons and starts gassing people? are you still going to be complaining about US and Israel?
In Response

by: Phil from: UK
October 03, 2012 10:13
Ivan, Iran is supporting a majority backed government, if it was not backed by the people of Syria, it would have been dismantled long ago by such a rebellion or a military coup. Nonetheless, it is a dictatorship and not a very nice one at that. The West and Saudi Arabia (+ allies) is backing the rebels, but who are these rebels and who operates in their ranks? I think if you look for an answer to this question, you will see that the rebels are in large part the same terrorist groups who currently threaten the West and the Saudi dictatorships.

Furthermore, these rebels are backed by Western and Saudi money and weapons. The West does not care about friends/enemies, it’s only interested in resources. Syria is a close ally of Iran and enemy of Israel, so must be removed by any means and surely you can see how this is similar to the West/Saudi backing the Taliban and their terrorist during the Soviet occupation, we all know how that turned out.

The fact is that if Iran develops a nuke, then Iran’s oil wealth is out of reach for the West. This is what this conflict is about.

Western political double standards are really quite obvious. It arms Saudi, which is a major originator and money book for Islamic terrorist, as well as brutal dictatorship which is armed to the teeth and more cruel and authoritarian than the Taliban. However, Saudi is a Western ally because the oil resources are under Western influence/control, so they can murder their own citizens and suppress popular civilian uprisings in their neighbouring vassal states with impunity and the West just looks the other way.
In Response

by: Olchie from: Boston
October 03, 2012 17:52
Agree with Ivan. Why speculate about what could happen, when homicide is happening right now as we speak in Syria and no one says anything. I wonder if Syrian civilians are less important than Iranians.
In Response

by: Ivan from: California
October 04, 2012 15:57
Thanks Olchie, that is all I am saying. i don't agree with the US and Israel threatening Iran with war. But they are, at this point, just threats. No one seems to care that the Syrians, with help from the Iranians and Russians, are going door to door and slaughtering entire families and tens of thousands of people have been murdered. What they are doing is not a threat it is mass murder.
In Response

by: William from: Aragon
October 04, 2012 23:16
Ivan, I don't know what distortions the media is delivering to you in California but we are not seeing it elsewhere. Just because the White House says something then that does not make it true - GWB and the mythical Iraqi WMD comes to mind immediately. Additionally, a number of countries are supporting Asad so why pick on Iran - you appear to have shifted the debate from Iran to Syria as if there is some logical connection.
In Response

by: Andrew from: Auckland
October 05, 2012 07:04
Ah, the Putin fan boys are out again. Surprising to see they are now posting as poms, but then again....

Phil, you obviously have no understanding of the system in Syria.

Syria is dominated by members of the minority Alawite Islamic sect. They dominate politics and the army and air force. Syria also has a very strong secret police force.

There have been a series of rebellions by the majority population over the last few decades, which were put down with extreme violence.

So, the conditions for a successful coup or uprising are not at all good.

BTW, your use of English leads me to believe you are another Russian troll.

by: Jay from: USA
October 02, 2012 20:32
Miss Esfandiari, thank you for reporting on this important issue. Let's hope it will lead politicians and others to talk about it.

by: Gordon Ball from: Ottawa Canada
October 02, 2012 21:07
Is there any way the Iranian regime could be made to listen to reason?

by: Anonymous
October 03, 2012 01:01
The West and Israel don't care. The civilian victims of military strikes would be colateral damage.

by: Alias from: US
October 03, 2012 05:13
"and that's another reason I think the US and Israel would think twice about it, because it is clearly contrary to international law to do that."

That's comical. He thinks the US and Israel care about international law.

No one follows international law.

by: Bijan from: Vancouver
October 03, 2012 05:20
those are not real iranian students, those are basijis which are a paramilitary of the government

by: Vakhtang from: Moscow
October 03, 2012 07:14
It is well known that when you treat a disease, you use the medicine..
It is well known that every drug has side effects...
Unfortunately,when conducting a military operation, even when using high-precision weapons will be civilian casualties..
So it was, it is and will in the foreseeable future..
On the other hand it is possible to put the question differently-
-How many people will die if the religious fanatics will get nuclear weapons in their hands?
As Russian saying--chop wood- chips fly...
Of course this all sounds cynical Golnaz but that is the reality..
War is unfortunately part of human existence...
I am writing this post, and in many parts of the World is a war and people are killing each other.. in the UN meanwhile is empty talks and demagogy...

by: Bernhard from: Germany
October 03, 2012 10:00
I don't think showing this important report to the decision makers in Israel would have any effect on them.

Those are the same people that invented the concept of the israeli so-called "Samson Option". It's very likely that most of them are close to, if not clinically insane.

I'm affraid they will get what they want, and they want a war with Iran.
In Response

by: Andrew from: Auckland
October 05, 2012 07:07
No Bernhard, the Israeli leadership are just very very reluctant to have another situation where their people get herded into death camps.

Now who was it who did that to them last time, oh thats right, the Germans......

by: Bill Webb from: Phoenix Arizona USA
October 03, 2012 19:57
If Iran is in full compliance, why would the UN Security Council have imposed increasingly severe sanctions on Iran so many times. It's not like nobody is paying attention to this. There's no question anymore about whether Iran is cheating and lying, like they have been on this subject for 25 years. Now that they are on the brink of being able to manufacture nuclear weapons, is not the time to start thinking about the possible ramifications of the world's opposition to their nuclear program. Moving the facilities to underground bunkers, how could you make it any more obvious:-(
In Response

by: Amin from: Canada
October 04, 2012 09:36
The UN Security Council is under intense pressure from the US, and Israel, which threatens to start WW3 unless Iran is put under more sanctions.

The US in turn is under intense pressure from the Israeli lobby, which donates tens of millions of dollars during US presidential elections, and which every US presidential candidate has to pander to to have a chance of winning.

You're bought all of the war propaganda and are now a stooge for the anti-Iran designs of special interest groups.

Comments page of 2

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Persian Letters is a blog that offers a window into Iranian politics and society. Written primarily by Golnaz Esfandiari, Persian Letters brings you under-reported stories, insight and analysis, as well as guest Iranian bloggers -- from clerics, anarchists, feminists, Basij members, to bus drivers.

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