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Use of Tactical Nukes Could Kill 100s Of 1000s

Between the Lines Q&A
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release May 7, 2006

Use of Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Iran Could Kill Hundreds of Thousands

Interview with Dr. Kurt Gottfried, chairman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, conducted by Scott Harris

Listen in RealAudio:

News reports by Seymour Hersh and other media outlets that the U.S. is planning for an attack against Iran's nuclear research facilities, included the prospect that the Bush administration was considering the use of tactical nuclear weapons to destroy underground bunkers. While the story made headlines across the world, much of the reporting on this issue within the United States had a kind of unconcerned tone and avoided looking into the grave consequences of their use.

The U.S. is the only nation in the world to have ever used nuclear weapons when it attacked the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the conclusion of World War II. But apart from the deployment of thousands of nuclear missiles and threat of mutual annihilation used as a deterrent during the Cold War with the Soviet Union, successive American governments have rarely used the threat of atomic attack as part of the nation's military doctrine. But since coming into office, President Bush has pursued funding for the development of a new class of battlefield nuclear weapons, while lowering the threshold for their use.

Between The Lines Scott Harris spoke with Dr. Kurt Gottfried, chairman of the Union of Concerned Scientists and emeritus professor of Physics at Cornell University, about U.S. planning for the use of nuclear weapons against Iran. Gottfried warns of the incentive such threats provide weaker nations to obtain nuclear weapons and the massive casualties that could result from a limited nuclear attack.

KURT GOTTFRIED: There's clearly a lot of detailed investigation behind those articles, so I think they have to be taken quite seriously. That doesn't mean that we're about to see war against Iran, but I think the planning surely is there. That it contains a nuclear component is not really surprising, that doesn't mean it will be used, but that the planning contains nuclear planning is also not surprising because the (Bush) administration has made it quite clear since coming to office six years ago now, that they consider nuclear weapons as a much more usable means for military purposes than previous administrations of either party.

They've conducted a Nuclear Posture Review on coming into office and they have stated very clearly in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, one the one hand they want to reduce the size of the stockpile -- which I think they are trying to do -- that they no longer consider Russia as a primary enemy. But on the other hand they've also greatly increased the number of scenarios in which they're willing to think about nuclear weapons.

Before that, and especially during the Cold War, it was just assumed that nuclear weapons were weapons of last resort, weapons to be used when the survival of the United States is at stake. And they have really taken the end of the Cold War to mean that nuclear weapons are more useable than they were when we had to worry about a Soviet response or Soviet threat, even as a first attack on us. It's also clear that the threat of nuclear weapons is being conveyed by some of these things that Hersh reports about our purposeful leaks in order to frighten Iran.

BETWEEN THE LINES: We haven't really had a national debate in the United States about the use of tactical or battlefield nuclear weapons such as is being talked about here in these articles. But what can you tell our listeners about the repercussions on the ground for the people of Iran, let's say, if Natanz or Isfahan, cities where these nuclear facilities are located are hit by such a nuclear tactical weapon?

KURT GOTTFRIED: The repercussions could go well beyond Iran. We at UCS and also the National Academy of Sciences have made detailed studies of the consequence of using nuclear weapons in Iran, or anywhere for that matter, but specifically in Iran against a deeply buried site, which is the command site, for example. And you can't do that, no matter what anybody tells you -- everybody agrees including the weapon labs, incidentally -- that you can't do that without having a fairly big nuclear explosion , which will produce a great amount of dirt thrown up into the air with radioactive fallout, and it depends then on the weather conditions, but you can certainly have weather conditions where a radioactive cloud would go from Iran and go all the way out to Pakistan and India. So it could hit some major cities and produce enormous casualties.

And the National Academy has put out a careful study last year which says that casualties could range up to the hundreds of thousands. I mean, fatalities, could range up to the hundreds of thousands depending on the weather, so that would be one consequence.

The other consequence I think would be that we're very vulnerable to Iran. Iran is -- one of the bad things about Iran, is that they really are a state that fosters terrorism. Iraq really wasn't. Saddam Hussein did not engage, despite what the administration said, did not foster terrorism. But Iran sure does. So there's no reason to not expect retaliation in the form of terrorism, both in the Middle East and possibly, I think plausibly here.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Does the U.S. threat of using nuclear weapons to destroy Iran's capacity to make their own weapons? Doesn't that send a double-message or maybe the reverse message, that you better get this weapon or you will be attacked?

KURT GOTTFRIED: Oh, I agree with you, it does. I mean, we're up a creek without a paddle, there's no question. We have a very weird policy. We have the largest, most powerful conventional forces in the world, yet we say we must have nuclear weapons as an integral part of our military posture. More so now than ever before.

And on the other hand, we're telling people it's not in your interest to have nuclear weapons. You're a much weaker state, it's bad thing for you to get them, it's not in your national interest. In this instance in particular, especially when you combine it with North Korea, you know, we've sort of relaxed about North Korea in a certain sense. We don't threaten them that much anymore because they now claimed and probably do have some nuclear weapons. So we've made it very clear that, as far as I'm concerned -- to Iran, that they should get nuclear weapons. And now that we're threatening them, "you better redouble your efforts to get them, because that's the only way you're going to get us out of threatening you."

I think this administration, when it came in, wanted not to have any dealings with these "rogue states." But you got to deal with them. It's unpleasant, I understand that, but you do have to deal with them, and you probably have to give them some kind of assurance that if they stop their nuclear program and they do it in a very verifiable manner, verifiable that they've stopped it, that they will get something in return.

We've done that with Pakistan, we've done it with India and we've done it de facto -- we haven't really said so in writing -- but clearly we've done that with North Korea. We have to face the fact that we're going to have to do that with Iran. If we're going to get them to stop, which I think is essential, we have to give something in return.

Contact Union of Concerned Scientists by calling (202) 331-5420 or visit their website at

Related linkson our website at :

* "The Nuclear Bunker Buster: Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator," animation from the Union of Concerned Scientists at

* "Reports Say Pentagon Planning Attack on Iran," Interview with Robert Scheer, journalist and author,conducted by Scott Harris, Between The Lines, Week Ending 4/21/06

* "Iran: The Day After," by Phyllis Bennis, April 19, 2006 by

* " Parallel Deceptions: The Bush Agenda for War in Iraq and Iran," Former U.N. Weapons Inspector Scott Ritter's speech in audio CD or video DVD format

* "U.S. Is Studying Military Strike Options on Iran: Any Mix of Tact, Threats Alarms Critics," by Peter Baker, Dafna Linzer and Thomas E. Ricks, Washington Post , April 9, 2006

* "The Iran Plans: Would President Bush go to war to stop Tehran from getting the bomb?" by Seymour M. Hersh, The New Yorker, April 17, 2006

* "U.S. Plans Strike to Topple Iran Regime - Report," The Guardian, April 10, 2006

* "How Crazy Are They?" by William Rivers Pitt,, April 11, 2006

* "Yes He Would," by Paul Krugman,The New York Times, April 10, 2006


Scott Harris is executive producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 40 radio stations and in RealAudio and MP3 on our website at This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines for the week ending April 28, 2006. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Scott Harris and Anna Manzo.

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