I have some readers who are much older than I am, and this image should look familiar to anyone born before 1970.

This is the projected effects of nuclear fallout on the continental U.S. after what a Soviet nuclear strike would most likely have looked like. The average person assumes that nuclear war is about killing as many of the other side's civilians as possible. In reality the first two or three waves of targets are all strategic and military with the odd major city thrown in (Moscow, D.C., and New York would most certainly have fried in the first strike because of their economic and political value). But the Commies would have been far, far more interested in striking Grand Forks, ND and Omaha, NE than Chicago or Los Angeles. Their goal would have been to destroy as much of the U.S. retaliatory capacity as possible, which would lead them to the vast ICBM fields scattered across the Great Plains, Strategic Air Command in Omaha, and Cheyenne Mountain in rural Colorado, a.k.a. NORAD. Of course there is no possible way that the Soviets could have destroyed enough of our ability to wage war to prevent themselves from being destroyed in the return fire. The inverse was also true, which is often suggested as the reason there was no World War III. But I digress.

In targeting the vast empty middle of the U.S. a theoretical limited Soviet strike would seem to have spared a good portion of the population. Unfortunately those dozens of high-megaton explosions in the Plains would have generated enough fallout to irradiate everything and everyone downwind – which just happens to be about 75% of the American population. So people who were spared being fried in an explosion would get to enjoy a slow death from radiation poisoning. Unpleasant stuff to say the least. It may take historians a century or two to figure out A) how humanity came so close to letting it happen and B) how in the hell we managed to avoid it.

Now consider Iran.

We are well aware that Iran's leaders talk a good game, especially when the topic is Israel. They go on about "pushing Israel into the sea" and wiping the country from the face of the Earth and blah blah blah. And the global concern over the Iranian nuclear program is focused mostly on Israel. No one seriously thinks Iran could deliver a nuclear weapon to the U.S. or even much of Europe, recent short-range ballistic missile tests notwithstanding. But let's say Bill Kristol and all of his like-minded colleagues are right. Let's take the leap of faith and assume that Iran can enrich enough plutonium to assemble a working warhead. They can deliver it with some accuracy and they intend to use it against Israel.

Such an attack, if it hit a major city like Tel Aviv, would kill a vast number of Israelis; 50,000 would not be an unreasonable guess, not counting radiation poisoning. It would also irradiate about half of Iran when the winds carried all of the radioactive dust eastward. A larger-scale attack – several warheads hitting multiple sites in Israel – would only compound the problem. So one of three things must be true:

1. The Iranian leaders are suicidal fanatics who are willing to kill a good portion of their own people (not to mention all of their Muslim brothers in Jordan, Syria, and other nations which would be blanketed with fallout) to inflict some damage which fall far short of destroying Israel. Would it be a terrible loss in Israel? Of course. But factoring in the NATO response, which we must imagine would be swift and utterly devastating to Iran, they would be committing national suicide to inflict a couple hundred thousand deaths on Israel.

2. Iran does not understand what nuclear fallout and/or wind are.

3. This is all just bullshit posturing and bold talk from an unstable regime full of unstable people who realize that their proposed actions would fail to accomplish the goal of destroying Israel while bringing swift and utter destruction to all of Iran.

Accepting #1 requires one too many drinks off of the right-wing demonization-of-enemies Kool-Aid. To say that this is their strategy is just an updated version of "The bloodthirsty Commie will stop at nothing to kill every last freedom-loving American." Since #2 is highly dubious, that sort of narrows it down…

15 thoughts on “IRAN, PART I: THE JET STREAM”

  • Fun map, Ed! I was born before 1960, but I don't remember seeing it in school, probably too busy with my head tucked beneath my arms under my desk during an equally fun air raid drill. Good times, good times…

    I'm voting for number 2. It's easier for me to believe they are stupid. Otherwise, why would they be building weapons of mass destruction in the first place? After all, isn't that the best definition of stupid? Which pretty much means all nuke-owning governments of the free world are stupid. Something to think about, I guess.

  • Owning a nuke puts you in the stupid-but-everyone-else-can't-call-me-stupid stupid club. Not owning a nuke puts you in the have-to-mind-the-nuclear-stupids club. Crazy, yes, to join the former. But crazy like a fox.

    I'd rather have the current standoffs than a return to the way World War Two was fought before Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

  • displaced capitalist says:

    3. This is all just bullshit posturing and bold talk from an unstable regime full of unstable people who realize that their proposed actions would fail to accomplish the goal of destroying ["the enemy"] while bringing swift and utter destruction to all [Americans].

    The same can be said about some right wing groups in America. Although some on Christian-right might actually WANT mutually assured destruction as they hope it will lead to their immediate rapture.

    (Cuz… you know… Jeebus will reward the righteous for their omnicide.)

  • I'd have said the likelihood of 1 and 2 were both ridiculously small, until I read this the other week [via LGM] :

    In the early 1980s, according to newly released documents, Fidel Castro was suggesting a Soviet nuclear strike against the United States, until Moscow dissuaded him by patiently explaining how the radioactive cloud resulting from such a strike would also devastate Cuba….

    Assumptions and dictators: not a good mix.

  • I was born in 1946 – one of your older readers, and thanks for the acknowledgement – and also do not recall ever seeing that map before.

    Looks like the Commies would have to nuke Houston, Brownsville, or perhaps Mexicali to have the cloud make it to Cuba.

    Like a couple of others, I don't consider #1 to be quite as unlikely as you present it. The mention of Hitler is rather cogent. His plan was war – consolidate the conquest – rinse and repeat as necessary. Certainly a lot of pure-bred blonde aryan cannon-fodder would have been sacrificed along the way.

    And it's not safe to assume that Iran's extremists are any more sane than ours, just because they have total control of the Gummint.

    I don't know anything about the education and general knowledge level of the ruling powers in Iran. But if they are anything like the Taliban in Afhganistan, they don't know jack shit about anything, which could well include both fallout and wind.

    By the way, #'s 1, 2, and 3 are not mutually exclusive propositions. The truth is probably a very ugly melange.

  • If I thought policy in Iran was made by the posturing loudmouth that serves as their president, I'd worry. Ayatollah Khamenei, on the other hand, may be a conservative in Iranian politics, but he's not an idiot.

  • Point (1) has been making the rounds of right-wing radio; a cousin of my wife's recently espoused it to me. He dropped out of high-school, and stopped taking his meds years ago (he's actually a paranoid schizophrenic). Those who take (1) to be true must explain why they believe te ruling establishment in Iran would relinquish wealth, privilege, and power in favor of annihilation; also, why they'd let the few fanatics in their midst inflict than upon them.

    A common mistake some commit is to assume that Iran is some monolithic political entity, where decision-making goes entirely top-down, emanating from a single source. Often, that source is taken to be A-Jad. Hence, they reason, if Mahmud and a few of his cronies are demonstrably insane, they can put the entire country at risk without concern for the consequences. Both presumptions are false. The bestubbled president, whose close-set eyes eerily remind one of G-Dubs, is only number three in the hierarchy. Even if Iran gets a working nuke, I doubt he'll be the one who gets to hold the atomic football. Second, the Revolutionary Guards and the military elites are less bent on messianic hellfire; decades of plum jobs running corrupt state enterprises makes one fat, lazy, and prone to maintaining the status quo.

  • Great post ed.

    I'll take option 3. This kind of talk keeps a certain part of the Iranian population relatively happy/ quiet. That this is also the part most likely to start blowing shit up/ assassinating politicians if they are unhappy also probably contributes.

  • Re: item #2: If they are aware of hot fallout, they probably think a merciful deity will spare their righteous asses, or that they will die for a good cause. Ahmedinejad appointed a self-aggrandizing conservative cleric (who lies about his accomplishments and credentials) as his Minister of Science and Technology, and A. is what…a civil engineer, by trade? I wouldn't be surprised if "Iran" thinks an electron is the size and shape of a lentil.

    If any of their intellectual elite remain alive and unincarcerated, I'm sure they are as embarrassed as I was when Bush hired all those Christian college graduates. I blush to think of it.

  • Rational thought from a rational guy. Thanks! As sappy as it sounds, one of the things that helped me get over my profound fears of nuclear war (child of the 70's and 80's here) was that Sting song "Russians". It's worth a re-read now.

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