October 16, 2008
Nuclear Arms in the Middle East
NUCLEAR ARMS IN THE MIDDLE EAST
AND WHAT IT COULD MEAN FOR NEW ZEALAND
When Prime Minister Helen Clark meets President Bush shortly at the White House, one of the main topics on the agenda will be Iran. In a world weary with the Iraq conflict there's little stomach, and likely to be strong public opposition, to engaging in a new battle with Iran. But as IAN WISHART notes in this analysis, the cost of allowing volatile states to go nuclear is too horrendous to ignore:
Imagine this as a nightmare scenario: a container ship plying a routine shipping lane approaches America's east coast. As the sun sets in the west the ship's crew, young Muslims, gather for evening prayers on the deck. But tonight there's a different mood on the ship, an electric excitement. One man, 19 if he's a day, waves a video camera around, recording speeches by each of the 18 crew, testimonies to their loved ones and, later, the world.
"Allahu akbar!" – God is great, the cry rings out, startling a gull on the railing. Then, from the bowels of the ship, the grinding of winches and gears as an object emerges from the hold and locks into position, a modified intercontinental ballistic missile carrying a nuclear warhead. Seconds later, the device is airborne, streaking towards the horizon leaving a slowly dispersing plume of exhaust gas in its wake.
Back on deck, the video testimonies, including footage of the missile launch, are already being relayed via an al Jazeera satellite orbiting far above, ready to tell the story to a world that doesn't yet know what's been unleashed. They won't have to wait long.
With a range of 2,000 kilometres carrying a one-tonne payload, the modified Shahab-3 Iranian missile could travel the length of New Zealand in just three minutes – not three hours like an airliner, three minutes.
Far above the city of New York, residents look up at what they think is a meteorite's trail until suddenly there's a blinding flash. All around them, lights go out. Computers stop, car engines seize and die. Life support units in hospital wards go blank leaving critically injured patients gasping like fish on a beach. Elevators grind to a halt, the power is down. Those who were looking skyward at the time of the flash will be, at the very least, temporarily blinded. There is chaos in the streets, but there is no radio, no TV and no cellphone or phone coverage. New York has just been returned to the 19th century, a time before cars and electricity were invented.
Seven minutes have passed. Seven minutes of hell, confusion and tragedy at the intersections where vehicles smashed into each other and pedestrians. Some, assuming it is the end of the world, are praying on the sidewalk in groups. Then, after seven stressful minutes, the biggest explosion they have ever heard shatters windows and bursts eardrums, as it buffets New York in a cacophony of destructive energy. It has taken seven minutes for the soundwaves from the nuclear explosion far above them to reach the ground.
It is not just New York. In Washington DC, Boston, Montreal and Miami, the scenes are equally primal. Over the next few hours and days radioactive rain and dust will fall, but few people will die of radiation in the short term. Most will develop cancers and other illnesses over the coming years.
By far the biggest loss of life is in the air – nearly 5,000 passenger aircraft (including several from New Zealand) carrying more than a quarter of a million people were airborne across the US at the moment the blast hit. With their avionics, engines and life support systems burnt out, the state of the art jetliners became nothing more than winged coffins, plunging and tumbling towards the ground.
All are victims of a new form of nuclear warfare – the ElectroMagnetic Pulse (EMP) attack.
If the above scenario sounds far-fetched and fanciful to you, here's a reality check. It is not only technologically possible, it has probably already passed through the crucial threshold of, not "if", but "when?".
The phenomenon of electromagnetic pulse as a side effect of nuclear blasts was discovered decades ago, but back then most of the military scientific research focused on maximizing the nuclear blast direct on a target to kill as many people and level as much infrastructure as possible; side effects were not really the primary issue.
According to US former defence intelligence analyst turned evangelist Chuck Missler, who's just concluded a speaking tour of NZ and Australia, the EMP threat is something we should have paid attention to.
"One of the scary discoveries is the threat of electromagnetic pulse. We've known for many years, obviously, that Israel is really a one bomb country - one nuke over Tel Aviv and it's over. What is a shock to discover is that the United States is also vulnerable to a single nuclear warhead," explains Missler.
"There was a commission set up by Congress, to assess the vulnerability of the United States to electromagnetic pulse attacks, and they published their report. It was a blue ribbon panel of about a dozen of our top scientists, who published their report in July of 2004, which happened to be the same month that the 9/11 commission published its report, and that of course is what the press jumped on. However, anyone who gets on the Internet can read the report, by searching for the electromagnetic pulse commission's report.
"That report points out that one nuke detonated say 100 miles - at very high altitude - over the United States would plunge the United States back to the 19th century, simply because the electromagnetic pulse would disable permanently the telecommunications circuits and the power grid. So if that were to happen, of course, the infrastructure collapse in big cities, and in terms of public health, water, terms of law enforcement, and so on, would create a state of pandemonium. It would literally take the United States out of the picture as a major world power."
To give you some idea of the scale of the trauma, the infrastructure that makes the United States a first world power would be out of action for months, possibly even a year or more in some cases. After all, the equipment you would normally use to repair power stations, phone systems and electronic equipment is itself electronic, and probably useless.
"Once an EMP attack occurs," says Missler, "you can no longer put in place a recovery plan. Your recovery plan, whatever it is, has to be in place before the attack, because you lose your ability to put it in place after the attack. When we were hit by Hurricane Katrina, some time ago, we discovered a lot of things. For example, how do you pump gas at a gas station if there is no power? How do you send an ambulance downtown, if there's gridlock because the signals are not working? You begin to realise that these various infrastructure systems are all interdependent on one another, and so the jeopardy of the major metropolitan areas, and thus most of the population, is very very serious. All of this leads to the view that you cannot let this happen. And if it's going to happen, you've got to pre-empt that somehow."
It was just such a pre-emptive strike that still has the Bush administration on the political ropes four years later. When the US attacked Iraq in 2003, it was this fear of a weapon of mass destruction falling into the wrong hands that drove US policy. But while Saddam Hussein was making all the running in hot air terms – boasting about what he might or might not have hidden away, it seems the US missed the bigger threat sitting just over the border – the People's Republic of Iran.
Unlike the Iraqi evidence, which turned out to be several years out of date, there is absolutely no doubt, publicly or privately, that Iran is working on a nuclear programme. The only doubt is over whether the programme is peaceful or military. Iran and its supporters claim the former, but there is good reason to believe the latter.
The evidence is two-fold: firstly, in the nature of activities being undertaken by Iran, including test-firing ballistic missiles from the decks of cargo ships in the Caspian sea, as reported by the respected Jane's periodical:
"The May edition of Jane's Missiles and Rockets reports that recent missile tests by Iran may have been part of the development of an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) warhead. Jane's cites testimony from the Senate Committee on the Judiciary's Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology, and Homeland Security from March 8, 2005, by Peter Pry and Lowell Wood. Wood is a member of the Congressional EMP Commission, which released its important report on the EMP threat in July 2004.
"Some of Iran's tests of its Shahab-3 had been terminated before the completion of their ballistic trajectories, that is, exploding in mid-flight by what appeared to be a self-destruct mechanism. Iran has nevertheless described the tests as fully "successful." Pry noted that the apparent contradiction would make sense "if Iran were practicing the execution of an EMP attack." Lowell Wood is quoted as having testified to the subcommittee that such an attack upon the United States could keep off most electrical functions for a time period of a few hours or decades, depending on how it was executed. Wood also warned the subcommittee that such an EMP warhead could be delivered against the United States by "a Scud missile launched from a freighter off the Atlantic coast."
The second piece of evidence suggesting a military motive is religious – Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is on record, repeatedly, as suggesting Iranians should be ready in the near future to play a key role in the battle of Armageddon. Ahmadinejad is firmly convinced the return of Islam's final prophet, the Mahdi, is imminent and that it must occur at a time of nuclear confrontation.
"Ahmadinejad of Iran is very, very candid," says Chuck Missler, "that he is driven by his eschatology, that is his theological beliefs about the end times, and he believes that his destiny is to usher in the Islamic view of doomsday, so to speak. That's a scary agenda for someone who can put his finger on the button.
"Ahmadinejad has the mentality of a suicide bomber, he is perfectly willing to sacrifice Iran for the cause of Islam. He regards Islam as the issue, not Iran. And that's worrying, to have someone in an official powerful position with that mindset."
The West has already seen what the mentality of martyrdom can do for Islam, and when young Muslims are repeatedly taught that death in jihad grants automatic access to paradise, the principle can be applied equally well at state level, not just for individuals but the entire population: sacrifice in the name of Allah is a destiny to be sought, not feared.
On that basis, argues Missler, can the West trust Iran not to put its nuclear material to military use?
"Clearly, Iran is seeking weapons grade material, because the sites, and there is over a dozen of them involved, are all heavy water sites, and that's for plutonium, weapons grade plutonium. It has nothing to do with Bushehr, which is a uranium power station. It's just a cover story. The real goal, of course, is a weapons grade capability. Ahmadinejad has been very candid in his speeches, that his goal is to wipe Israel off the map, and when the Majlis - the Iranian parliament - voted on the nuclear programme. 247 of the 290 members of Parliament voted by standing up and shouting 'death to the United States, death to Israel'.
"Most Americans presume that somehow Israel will pre-empt this, and I think most Israelis assume that somehow the US will pre-empt it, but meanwhile, the intelligence services – the Mossad, Shin-bet and some of the others - they estimate that it is a matter of months not years, before Iran has the capability that they are seeking," says Missler.
Of even more embarrassment to the US, some of the missile technology now being deployed by the Iranians has been traced as based on American technology supplied to China by the Democrats when Bill Clinton was president. China, North Korea and Russia are heavily involved in the Iranian buildup.
So the question again arises, should New Zealand support, even if only morally, a US or Israeli pre-emptive strike against Iran's nuclear facilities? The question is far more complex than it may appear.
On the one hand, as many on the Left point out, Iran has committed no crime at this point warranting international attack. It should be free to pursue a peaceful nuclear power programme without interference from the West.
On the other hand, sitting as it does on some of the world's largest oilfields, why would Iran need nuclear power in a land where oil is cheaper than water? And the West cut Hitler some slack, with Chamberlain's famous "Peace for our Time" declaration, only to discover the extra time gave Hitler the opportunity to build a formidable military capacity and launch blitzkrieg surprise attacks. If Britain had taken Hitler's rhetoric seriously, argue critics, instead of shying away from pre-emptive military action, 50 million lives might have been saved.
But there's another angle that no other media have focused on yet: the economic price.
If Iran, or a terror organization like al Qa'ida using Iranian, North Korean or old Soviet missile technology, were to launch a successful EMP attack on the United States, the economic effects would hit every single household in New Zealand, and the rest of the West, harder than any other financial burden outside of a fully-engaged wartime economy. As New Zealand's second largest trading partner, the United States is a huge market for New Zealand goods and services. With US computer networks, power stations and phone systems shut down for months or years, you can kiss goodbye to the boom times and say hello to the biggest financial depression the world has ever seen.
Then you can factor in the tragedy. An EMP strike 160kms out in space would knock out every airliner with a line of sight to the blast, meaning many trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific flights. The scale of loss of life of New Zealanders would make the Erebus disaster look small. The psychological impact of such an attack would dwarf the effects of 9/11.
Then you can factor in the retaliation. During the Cold War years, the US ensured that its nuclear arsenal and command and control facilities were shielded from any potential EMP caused by a Russian first strike. Additionally, the strategic nuclear submarine fleet that cruises the world 24/7, hiding in magnetic anomaly areas like the one off New Zealand's Fiordland coast, are capable of launching a retaliatory strike if required. You can take it as read that an atmospheric nuke over North America causing 5,000 airliner crashes, more than 250,000 fatalities and innumerable chaos on the ground would likely be met with the launch of a full nuclear strike against every populated city in Iran, if not some neighbouring states like Syria as well. The death toll would climb into the millions, if not tens of millions. An itchy trigger finger in the US (as much of its conventional military would be out of action) would mean a much greater readiness to launch a nuclear strike against anyone vaguely threatening or looking like they might try taking advantage of a crippled America.
With America gravely wounded, Israel would be releasing the safety catch on its 400 nuclear missiles – distances in the Middle East mean advance warning is measured in seconds, rather than minutes. This, of course, assumes that Iran doesn't try an EMP attack on Israel simultaneous with the US strike.
Says Chuck Missler:
"Most people are really unaware of the nature of the tensions that are brewing, but people in the strategic arena are very sensitive to the fact that we have nuclear weapons increasingly being proliferated. The nightmare scenario of 50 years ago was called the Nth country problem, back in those days there were only two players, they were both in balance, and they were both rational. The United States could count on the Soviet Union doing whatever was in its own best interests, so it was a rational environment. Today, we have not two players, we got over a dozen – frankly - and they are not in balance. There is a race going on. So the real issue is, how do you have what we call a chicken race with someone who believes he goes to heaven if he loses? So it is a tense time."
There is some suggestion that America's tough talk against Iran, and rumoured threats of a pre-emptive strike, may be having some slight affect against Ahmadinejad domestically in Iran, particularly after late February's speech where he described Iran's nuclear programme as a runaway train, "with no brake and no reverse gear".
Britain's Guardian newspaper reported those comments had alarmed some Iranians:
"Mohammad Atrianfar, a respected political commentator, accused the president of using 'the language of the bazaar' and said his comments had made it harder for Ali Larijani, the country's top nuclear negotiator, to reach a compromise with European diplomats. ... 'This rhetoric is not suitable for a president and has no place in diplomatic circles,' said Mr Atrianfar, a confidant of Hashemi Rafsanjani, an influential regime insider and rival of Mr Ahmadinejad. 'It is the language people in the bazaar and alleyways use to address the simplest issues of life'."
Associated Press reported Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, was less than impressed as well, although some Iranian commentators put that down to Ahmadinejad's economic policies, rather than foreign policy.
Still, as Iranian author Amir Taheri wrote in a commentary for the Gulf News of the United Arab Emirates, "the nuclear issue has become a regime change issue" in Iran, and its outcome will radically change the course of the country.
"If [Ahmadinejad's] Khomeinist regime emerges victorious from the current confrontation, it would move to a higher degree of radicalism, thus, in effect, becoming a new regime.
"The radical faction would be able to purge the rich and corrupt mullahs by promoting a new generation of zealots linked with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard and the security services. It would also move onto the offensive in the region, seeking to reshape it after the Khomeinist revolution's geo-strategic interests.
"If, on the other hand, the Khomeinist regime is forced to back down on this issue, the radical moment would fade, while the many enemies of the regime regroup to either topple it or change it beyond recognition as Deng Xiao-ping did with the Maoist regime in China."
But the Bush administration's rhetoric will have to convince more than just a few religiously liberal journalists and commentators if it is to have any effect, and so far Iran is showing no sign of pulling back from the brink.
As a former intelligence analyst specializing in guided missiles, Missler's views on Iran are pessimistic, given the upsurge in radical Islam throughout the Middle East.
"In very real terms, Iran represents a much more serious proximate threat to the United States than Iraq did. When they were broke it wasn't a problem, but now they've got oil revenues and nuclear weapons it is a whole different ball game. "Clearly the United States has got her hands full with the Iraq mess on the one hand and a growing serious threat of Iran on the other, but who knows, I think the next 6 months to a year is going to be more turbulent than most people have any idea."
Missler's views as a Christian evangelist are also resonating with the public, he says, and they include the key role that Iran (Persia) plays in a dramatic future battle outlined in Ezekiel 38 and 39, in the Bible. Missler's public meetings in Australasia have coincided with the latest ratcheting up of the nuclear tension, and "I've been getting standing room only at some of the meetings," he says.
So, in asking the question again, is a pre-emptive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities something the West should contemplate, or should we, like New Zealand's position on the Ruapehu Lahar, allow nature to take its course even if it means a greater loss of life down the track? There is good reason to believe that public opinion inertia, coupled with a strong PR push by the AntiWar movement, will prevent both the United Nations and the US from making a decision in time. Better start stocking up that bird flu cupboard again…