Why Chirac is wrong

February 09, 2007|By Ben Zaitchik

French President Jacques Chirac recently opined that Iran's possession of a nuclear bomb or two would "not be very dangerous." After all, he reasoned, "Where will it drop it, this bomb? On Israel? It would not have gone 200 meters into the atmosphere before Tehran would be razed to the ground."

In follow-up interviews, Mr. Chirac maintained that a nuclear attack on Iran would be an option if Tehran were to initiate an exchange - without specifying which nation would launch the retaliation. As for Israel, he had "no recollection" of mentioning the country in his first interview.

The callousness of these moral calculations is disturbing, to say the least, and Mr. Chirac can't be the first world leader to have considered the possibility. Powerful nations such as France and, even more so, the United States must decide whether to engage in a regional conflict by weighing the human tragedy in the affected region against the interests of their citizens and the global community.

But this approach doesn't work when it comes to nukes. What is truly frightening about Mr. Chirac's comments is that the leader of one of the world's major nuclear powers appears not to realize this. The French president is approaching a nuclear conflict in the Middle East as a matter of realpolitik. Namely, we can reasonably expect that Tehran would not bomb Tel Aviv on account of the risk to itself, but if the Iranian government does behave unreasonably - which certainly seems possible - the nuclear exchange would be small and, to the rest of the world, bearable.

Set aside the ethics for a moment. What is specifically disturbing about Mr. Chirac's remarks is that they demonstrate an ignorance of the environmental consequences of nuclear conflict. Namely, even a "modest" nuclear exchange would have severe impacts far beyond the region in which the bombs were dropped, because of the atmospheric effects of nuclear detonation.

Those who would accept a regional nuclear conflict in the name of realpolitik lack even a basic understanding of what this conflict would mean for the world. During the Cold War, scientists found that a massive nuclear exchange between the U.S. and the Soviet Union would unleash a global "nuclear winter" several years to several decades long. The ensuing famine would wipe out nearly the entire population of the world.

In today's nuclear geography, we worry less about a massive exchange of superpowers and more about a regional conflict between developing states. If one or two Hiroshima-sized bombs were exchanged between Iran and Israel, or India and Pakistan, or any other pair of nuclear rivals, Earth's climate could absorb the shock. However, a one- or two-bomb exchange is unlikely. An aggressor nation would probably send several bombs at once, to ensure a successful hit and to inflict as much damage as possible in anticipation of retaliatory strikes.

If even a small number of volleys were exchanged - a few dozen Hiroshima-sized bombs, or several larger, modern nuclear weapons - the impact on climate would be catastrophic. Studies reported at last year's meeting of the American Geophysical Union indicate that an exchange of 1.5 megatons, combined with ensuing fires, would loft enough aerosols into the stratosphere to shorten the growing season in the Northern Hemisphere for 10 years, resulting in severe economic depression, food shortages and, likely, the displacement of large populations even within the developed world.

Previously stable states might survive, but many of their citizens would not. Modern civilization would be crippled. And a 1.5-megaton exchange represents only 0.03 percent of the world's nuclear capacity.

Let me be clear: The reason to prevent a regional nuclear war is that we cannot allow the horror of millions of deaths within the affected region. But if this is not enough to motivate our world leaders, and Mr. Chirac's remarks suggest it might not be, we need to emphasize the threat that a small, distant nuclear conflict poses to our home turf. This price is unacceptable in human terms and, if you need them, economic terms.

During the Cold War, two gargantuan powers threatened the world with nuclear winter, and there was little that less-powerful countries could do about it. Today, any number of poorer countries could impose nuclear-environmental catastrophe on the rest of the world. Ignorant realpolitik like that suggested by President Chirac would allow it to happen. Enlightened self-interest on the part of the world's most powerful countries could help to prevent it.

One can debate the best policy for addressing Iran's nuclear ambitions, but accepting the possibility of a regional nuclear conflict is not an option.

Ben Zaitchik is a research associate with the Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center at the University of Maryland. His e-mail is zaitchik@post.harvard.edu.

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