A surprise American or Israeli air strike on Iranian nuclear sites could cause a large number of civilian as well as military casualties, says a report published today.
The report, Iran: Consequences of a War, written by Professor Paul Rogers and published by the Oxford Research Group, draws comparisons with Iraq. It says the civilian population in that country had three weeks to prepare for war in 2003, giving people the chance to flee potentially dangerous sites. But Prof Rogers says attacks on Iranian facilities, most of which are in densely populated areas, would be surprise ones, allowing no time for such evacuations or other precautions.
"Military deaths in this first wave of attacks would be expected to be in the thousands," he says. "Civilian deaths would be in the many hundreds at least, particularly with the requirement to target technical support for the nuclear and missile infrastructure, with many of the factories being located in urban areas."
The death toll would eventually be much higher if Iran took retaliatory action and the United States responded, or if the US took pre-emptive military action in addition to strikes on nuclear sites.
Prof Rogers, of the University of Bradford's peace studies department, says: "A military operation against Iran would not ... be a short-term matter but would set in motion a complex and long-lasting confrontation. It follows that military action should be firmly ruled out and alternative strategies developed."
US and other western critics of Tehran say the government there is intent on securing a nuclear weapons capability. The Iranians deny this, saying they are pursuing civilian nuclear energy. The issue could still be resolved diplomatically, but both the US and Israel have said the option of air strikes remains open.
Prof Rogers says the aim of an attack would be to set back Iran's nuclear programme by at least five years. He says Britain could be drawn in as US aircraft would probably use UK bases.
He lists the expected targets as the Tehran Research Reactor, a radioisotope production facility, a range of nuclear-related laboratories, and the Kalaye Electric Company, all in Tehran, and facilities in Isfahan and Natanz.
"The new reactor nearing completion at Bushehr would be targeted, although this could be problematic once the reactor is fully fuelled and goes critical some time in 2006," he says. "Once that has happened, any destruction of the containment structure could lead to serious problems of radioactive dispersal affecting not just the Gulf coast but west Gulf seaboards in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates."
He adds: "All the initial attacks would be undertaken more-or-less simultaneously, in order to kill as many of the technically competent staff as possible, therefore doing the greatest damage to longer-term prospects."
Iran would be unable to prevent such an attack, as it has only limited air defences. But Prof Rogers says it has a large arsenal of responses. It could:
- withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and pursue speedy development of nuclear weapons capability
- encourage retaliatory action against Israel by the Lebanese-based Hizbullah group, which has missiles capable of hitting Haifa and several other Israeli cities;
- close the Strait of Hormuz, one of the main access routes for oil from the Gulf;
- send Iranian paramilitary units into states such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates;
- or order Iranian Revolutionary Guards to step up links with insurgents in Iraq.
Prof Rogers says a US or Israeli attack could also help al-Qaida by increasing the anti-US mood in the region and beyond.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006