It was a tragic coincidence that Monday, April 1, 2013 was both the last day of the Jewish celebration of Passover and the 34th anniversary of the 1979 referendum establishing the Islamic Republic of Iran, under the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Ironically as well, it was the day after Western Christendom’s Easter Sunday.
At noon that Monday, a Liberian-flagged freighter passed out of the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean, ostensibly en route to Italy with commercial cargo. It took just under five minutes for the missile that was launched from its deck to reach Tel Aviv, 300 miles away. The missile detonated 2,000 feet above Israel’s second most populous city as lunchtime crowds thronged the sidewalks.
The blinding flash of light on that clear day fried eyeballs that locked onto it from several miles away, and gave flash blindness to those whose eye contact was indirect. The thermal pulse out of an explosion generating several million degrees centigrade — vastly greater than the 5,500-degree centigrade surface temperature of the Sun — inflicted third-degree burns close in, and lesser burns out to several miles. The supersonic blast shockwave obliterated structures within a half-mile radius, with structural damage out to a radius of five miles. Glass was shattered out to a radius of 10 miles. Radioactive dust spread over a 20-mile radius. Virtually no one within a half-mile radius survived.
Moments later a second missile slammed into western Jerusalem, the warhead bursting on the ground, to minimize blast radius damage to Muslim-controlled East Jerusalem. But the ground burst threw up thousands of tons of highly toxic radioactive chunks, scattering them over the entire city, making it uninhabitable for generations. The wind picked up, and the toxic cloud blew across the River Jordan, poisoning tens of thousands of Palestinians, Jordanians, and Iraqis. Many thousands of people in countries further east (following the normal prevailing wind direction) suffered radiation sickness in various forms, with many dying of their wounds.
A third missile burst over Haifa, inflicting damage comparable to that in Tel Aviv in the area close to ground zero, but with less population loss due to Haifa’s lower density.
Over the next month, fatalities would double. Hospitals were so overwhelmed with casualties that civilian facilities had to be converted into emergency centers, but tens of thousands died before ameliorative care could be applied. Economic life in Israel ground to a halt.
The human toll in Tel Aviv alone, in a span of 30 days, reached 100,000. If adjusted for relative population size, this would translate into more than 4 million Americans killed — equal to some 1,500 times America’s loss due to the September 11, 2001 attacks. The Tel Aviv figure alone equated to more than the total killed and wounded suffered by the United States — 3.7 million — in all its wars from the Revolutionary War to the wars of today. Add in the toll in Jerusalem and Haifa, and 300,000 Israelis were killed, another 300,000 wounded — equivalent for the U.S. to 12.5 million dead and 12.5 million wounded. The Jewish state had suffered what its leaders promised would never happen again, what its allies promised not to allow again: a Second Holocaust. Compounding Israel’s agony, though Jewish law generally prohibits cremation, with hundreds of thousands of rotting corpses posing a potentially lethal public health hazard, it was necessary for the authorities to conduct mass cremations. That these were done to save lives, not cruelly take them, did not dispel the Holocaust imagery.
Israel’s retaliation followed within an hour. Ballistic missiles launched from Israel, and from diesel submarines; airstrikes with nuclear bombs arrived two hours later; the main targets were Iranian military assets that could still target Israel, but an exemplary component of the nuclear strike put megaton bombs over Tehran and other large cities, including Qom, the religious capital of the Iranian ayatollahs. Tehran, which sits in a valley, experienced multiple blast shockwave reverberations, turning the city into a veritable charnel house. Most of the 50 million Iranians living in urban areas were exposed to the elemental fury of megaton-yield thermonuclear bombs, generated by an initial temperature of 10 million degrees centigrade, as hot as the interior of the Sun. Within 10 seconds a mile-wide fireball pushed supersonic shockwaves out to three miles, and after 50 seconds out to 12 miles, with the fireball four miles above ground zero. To a radius of four miles — 50 square miles — the destruction was nearly total, with third-degree burns common within that radius. In all, 20 million Iranians died within 30 days, with another 15 million injured.
But Iran’s leaders, safely hidden in shelters buried deep in the mountains, survived, though communications were largely shut down by a one-megaton high-altitude air-burst that sent serial lethal jolts of electromagnetic pulses (EMP) to fry Iran’s infrastructure electronics. Delegated launch authority in case of nuclear attack, several Iranian missile commanders launched A-bombs at the great Saudi oil port of Ras Tanura, obliterating the world’s largest crude oil port, through which 10 percent of global oil consumption passes. Several commanders launched atomic weapons at Riyadh, devastating the Saudi leadership.
Meanwhile, the media converged on Israel, overwhelming security forces. Horrific pictures of the devastation were broadcast round the clock, and posted on the Internet. Islamist mobs exulted publicly all over the globe. U.S., Israeli, and other Western embassies were assailed in Arab capitals, in several Pakistani cities, in Kabul, and in several Latin American countries as well. Local security forces stood by as Western diplomats were murdered. From southern Lebanon, Iran’s top terror proxy, Hezbollah, launched 20,000 rockets into northern Israel in the first week. In Gaza, 5,000 rockets smuggled in with help from Egypt’s Islamist government were launched into central and southern Israel. The barrages overwhelmed Israel’s world-best missile defense shield.
Sporadic Israeli airstrikes were launched into southern Lebanon targeting Hezbollah redoubts, and into Gaza. It was unclear who was running Israel’s government, as most communications were down all over the country. With Iran already laid waste, a bewildered United States stood aloof, trying to sort out events in the war-torn region. U.S. intelligence agencies expressed shock that Iran had clandestinely developed and stockpiled a small arsenal of nuclear warheads of sufficiently advanced design to fit inside the nose cone of its ballistic missiles, a development they had thought a year or two away.
Egypt went on full military alert, but took no immediate action. In Iraq, the ruling Shi’a faction faced a sudden Sunni insurgency, which had been gathering steam since U.S. troops exited Iraq. The Kurds, seeing opportunity amid chaos, declared a separate Kurdish republic in the north, uniting with their brethren who broke from war-torn Syria. Iranian Kurds declared their independence, separating from what was now a pariah state. Turkey faced a revolt among its own Kurdish population, as Mideast Kurds saw a chance to gain the nation-state denied them by the colonial powers a century earlier.
Stock exchanges all across the globe were closed for a fortnight, as central bankers and investment firms tried to decide how to balance the avalanche of sell orders by deciding how much governmental capital would be printed, and deciding at what level to allow markets to open. Their first guess, 50 percent down, proved disastrously high. After a second week-long stoppage, markets reopened at 18 percent of their prewar value, then settled around 20 percent a month later. The world economy plunged into a protracted, deep global depression.
After a huge initial price spike to $512 per barrel, oil plunged back to $80, as bankrupt consumer countries could not pay a hugely inflated tab; heating oil was rationed in the winter, and summer brownouts became commonplace. Transportation use was drastically curtailed, with air travel plummeting. Russia saw anticipated petroleum revenues fall well below the $100 price it needs to sustain its economy and social fabric. China and India accelerated coal projects, but with petroleum in short supply their economies collapsed, setting off immense internal unrest. Gold topped $10,000 per ounce. The dollar plunged 88 percent in value. Though the crash enabled the U.S. to inflate its way out of accumulated debt, U.S. assets fell even more drastically, as housing, lending, and consumer spending plunged to lows not seen in two generations.
America’s allies drew the conclusion that the American nuclear guarantee was no longer credible. Gulf Arab nations instituted nuclear programs, purchasing nuclear bombs from Pakistan and North Korea. Asian allies Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea jump-started theirs, with Japan going nuclear within 90 days. Australia and Canada started nuclear weapons programs. Pakistan’s 100-nuke arsenal fell into Islamist hands. America’s position as global superpower supreme vanished overnight, as its immense military was paralyzed by political indecision and its economy pushed over the abyss by the global crash. Preoccupied with domestic crises, America left its closest Mideast ally to fend for itself, save for sending medical and food supplies.
The second American Century was over. Waves of jihadist fervor swept Arab and other Muslim lands. This time the struggle against an ascendant West could at last be won. In this the jihadi would be proven wrong, but only after a series of sanguinary wars taking countless lives. A crisis of confidence in the West toppled governments everywhere, but with no leaders emerging who could win broad popular trust. The essential glue of civil society had come unstuck; it would take generations to repair. Devastation was so widespread and severe that much of the world was catapulted back a century in time.
The events of April 2013 put paid to the illusion that a nuclear strike upon Israel, while a catastrophe in human terms, could be weathered by an America spared the physical annihilation visited upon the Jewish state. Twenty-first-century America proved a far less cohesive society than the America that won the Second World War. America thus found itself irremediably diminished as a world power, its enemies exultant.
The events of April 2013 also tragically dispelled the notion that were Israel hit with a nuclear strike, America would, having not been similarly struck, essentially survive largely intact, after riding out severe economic and geopolitical shocks, and in short order regain its superpower status and consequent geopolitical ascendancy. American pre-eminence was rudely displaced by accelerating global chaos, with no other nation able to replace America’s world-stabilizing role.
Historians a century later would wonder how powerful Western nations informed by the serial calamities of twentieth-century world wars, by the serial failures of intelligence to ascertain when closed societies crossed the nuclear threshold, and by the serial failures to stop fanatical despots, could allow a third-rate military power run by Islamist theocrats to come anywhere close to acquiring nuclear weapons. Put simply, on the era’s greatest threat the West rolled the dice, and came up snake-eyes.
America did, physically, survive. But security, prosperity, and America’s future died.
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The above, on the fair odds, likely will not happen; with no nuclear bomb used in war since 1945, odds-makers would call this a long shot. But the risk, most observers would admit, is growing. Thus it could happen. But the scenario as to what would happen in event of war could come to pass. Iran has successfully launched a missile from a floating barge. The prospect teaches lessons that we should learn. We have yet to learn them.
While April 2013 is earlier than intelligence agencies project for an Iranian capability to place a nuclear warhead on a missile, intelligence on nuclear weapons progress is often wrong. U.S. intelligence was surprised by the 1949 Soviet A-bomb test, as well as by China’s 1964 and India’s 1974 tests. And there is a more recent refutation of Vice President Biden’s debate assertion that the U.S. will know when Iran starts building a bomb: North Korea, which announced in 2002 that it had the bomb. U.S. intelligence could not confirm this until the North’s first test, on October 9, 2006.
Despite compelling findings by international inspectors that Iran continues to develop a nuclear weapon capability, diplomatic negotiations proceed without any plausible chance of success. Sanctions imposed have been watered down to take account of U.N. politics. During the Bush years and Obama’s first term over 10,000 exemptions to sanctions had been issued. President Obama has exempted the top 20 importers of Iranian petroleum from central bank sanctions. And Iran’s nuclear program marches on, despite a 2006 U.N. Security Council resolution demanding that Iran freeze uranium enrichment.
If the above scenario seems extreme, nuclear war is the ultimate man-made extreme event. As for resilience after catastrophe, recall how everyone waited for the next terrorist shoe to drop after September 11, 2001, any day; many people expected another major attack before year-end. Jittery feelings prevailed for several years, before a measure of normalcy was restored. This persisted with fewer than 3,000 dead. Now imagine 12.5 million dead and 12.5 million wounded. How would we have coped? How would Israel cope with 300,000 dead and 300,000 wounded?
John C. Wohlstetter is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute. His latest book is “Sleepwalking with the Bomb.”