Finally, Vice President Biden has acknowledged what has been argued in this column and elsewhere for several years. Speaking for the president, to be sure, Biden asserted that Israel, as a “sovereign nation,” has every right to protect itself against a nuclearizing Iran. Understood in terms of international law, the precise preemptive action that Mr. Biden has in mind is called “anticipatory self-defense.” Today, however, the real problem is less a matter of law than of operational cost and complexity. Although the vice president is correct about Israel’s legal right to stay alive, it is already very late in the game to make preemption work.
On several occasions, the United Nations imposed “serious” sanctions against Iran. Nonetheless, uranium enrichment only accelerated in that country. Indeed, at no time did Tehran show even the slightest inclination to value a more respected place in the “international community” more highly than getting the bomb.
To some extent, Israel can rely upon its Arrow anti-missile system for a limited measure of active defense. Still, Israel’s ballistic missile defense (BMD) network can never really provide the Jewish State with adequate existential security.
Tests of Israel’s Arrow have repeatedly been successful, and the Arrow will likely be augmented soon by other and even-better systems. This will be important for the protection of Israel’s presumed second-strike nuclear forces. But to safeguard vulnerable civilian populations, Israel’s ballistic missile defense network would have to be 100 percent effective against incoming nuclear warheads. This, as I have also argued on these very pages of The Jewish Press for several years – sometimes together with my Project Daniel colleague, Major-General (IDF/Res.) Isaac Ben-Israel – is an inconceivable expectation.
International law is not a suicide pact. No country can be required to cooperate in its own annihilation. Leaving Iran to the sanctions of the United Nations, and also to the perilous viability of complex defense technologies, could bring Israel to outer margins of survival.
Some cry repeatedly for “fairness” in nuclear world politics, and recent UN proposals have called for a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone in the Middle East. But Israel is not Iran. Israel does not declare itself at war with Iran, or even with any Arab state. Israel holds its presumed nuclear weapons quietly, unthreateningly, without bravado. It does not announce plans to “wipe off the map” any other country. It maintains a presumed nuclear status only as an indispensable deterrent to its own destruction.
What exactly does Israel have to fear? Twenty-nine years ago, I published the first of nine books that contained descriptions of physical and medical consequences of a nuclear war. These authoritative descriptions were drawn largely from a major 1975 report by the National Academy of Sciences, and included the following still valid points: large temperature changes; contamination of food and water; disease epidemics in crops, domesticated animals, and humans due to ionizing radiation; shortening of growing seasons; irreversible injuries to aquatic species; widespread and long-term cancers due to inhalation of plutonium particles; radiation-induced abnormalities in persons in utero at the time of detonations; a vast growth in the number of skin cancers and increasing genetic disease.
Overwhelming health problems would afflict the survivors of a nuclear attack upon Israel. These problems would extend beyond immediate burn injuries. Retinal burns would occur in the eyes of persons far from the explosions. Israelis would be crushed by collapsing buildings and torn to shreds by flying glass. Others would fall victim to raging firestorms. Fallout injuries would include whole-body radiation injury, produced by penetrating, hard gamma radiations; superficial radiation burns produced by soft radiations; and injuries produced by deposits of radioactive substances within the body.
After an Iranian nuclear attack, even a “small” one, those few medical facilities that might still exist in Israel would be taxed beyond capacity. Water supplies would become altogether unusable. Housing and shelter could be unavailable for hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of survivors. Transportation would break down to rudimentary levels. Food shortages would be critical and long-term.
Israel’s complex network of exchange systems would be shattered. Virtually everyone would be deprived of the most basic means of livelihood. Emergency police and fire services would be decimated. All systems dependent upon electrical power could stop functioning. Severe trauma would occasion widespread disorientation and psychiatric disorders for which there would be absolutely no therapeutic services.
Normal human society would cease. The pestilence of unrestrained murder and banditry would augment plague and epidemics. Many of the survivors could expect an increase in serious degenerative diseases. They could also expect premature death, impaired vision, and sterility. An increased incidence of leukemia and cancers of the lung, stomach, breast, ovary and uterine cervix would be unavoidable.
The extensive fallout would upset many balanced relationships in nature. Israelis who survive the nuclear attack would have to deal with an enlarged insect population. Like the locusts of biblical times, mushrooming insect hordes would spread from the radiation-damaged areas in which they arose.
Insects are generally more resistant to radiation than humans. This fact, coupled with the prevalence of unburied corpses, uncontrolled waste and untreated sewage, would generate tens of trillions of flies and mosquitoes. Breeding in the dead bodies, these insects would make it impossible to control typhus, malaria, dengue fever and encephalitis. Throughout Israel, tens or even hundreds of thousands of rotting human corpses would pose the largest health threat. The survivors would envy the dead.
This is only the tip of the iceberg. Interactions between individual effects of nuclear weapons would make matters far worse. As Vice President Biden now understands, Israel can never allow an openly genocidal Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.Although any Israeli preemption effort would encounter serious operational difficulties, the Jewish State simply cannot rely upon international guarantees or even on its own advanced system of ballistic missile defense. If it is finally forced to act alone (so, what else is new?), Israel’s expression of anticipatory self-defense will assuredly be less than 100 percent successful, but it could still save the lives of many Israelis and Americans.
One last point. Current political instability in Iran could still bring down the Ahmadinejad government, possibly even replacing it with a less aggressive regime. It would be prudent, therefore, for both Washington and Jerusalem to wait until there is greater clarity in Tehran. In the end, however, Vice President Biden’s correct assertion on Israel’s incontestable right to endure must remain the very final standard of decisional judgment.
LOUIS RENÉ BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is Professor of International Law at Purdue. He is author of several of the earliest major books on nuclear strategy and nuclear war, including APOCALYPSE: NUCLEAR CATASTROPHE IN WORLD POLITICS (The University of Chicago Press, 1980), and SECURITY OR ARMAGEDDON: ISRAEL’S NUCLEAR STRATEGY (D.C. Heath, Lexington Books, 1986). Dr. Beres was also Chair of Project Daniel, a small private group that delivered its own special report on ISRAEL’S STRATEGIC FUTURE to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in January 2003. He is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.