By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
"If there's an attack on Iran by Israel and the US, there's no way to prevent it from becoming a nuclear war." - Former Cuban president Fidel Castro
Castro uttered these ominous words last month, and this week, undeterred by an army of Western skeptics, repeated his warning of a "nuclear holocaust" by making a rare appearance in parliament.
The frail 84-year-old may have stepped down from the presidency, but not from the realm of international politics, especially when he is confident that the United States has finally a leader that may be receptive to his powers of persuasion.
"Obama will not give the order if we persuade him, we're making a contribution to this positive effort," Castro said in his brief yet meaningful speech, peppered with familiar vocabulary on American imperialism.
Is this baseless paranoia or a tissue of political realism? An examination of the potential "worst-case scenario" in a future US-Iran and or US+Israel versus Iran conflict favors Castro's dire warning, for the following reasons.
First, the US now has a new nuclear posture that leaves the door open for a nuclear offensive, save with the countries that are in good standing with their nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations. The "Obama doctrine" is, in fact, a step back toward a more nuclear trigger-happy approach, despite the appearance to the contrary and Obama's pledge of reducing the US's strategic reliance on nukes.
Second, in being open to possibly using nuclear weapons against a perceived "rogue state" such as Iran, the US government is likely to tap into its arsenal of tactical or "smart" nukes that are carried on US warships, submarines and bombers. The "bunker-buster" nuclear missiles can be unleashed under the excuse of a lack of an alternative to get to Iran's underground inventory of weapons of mass destruction.
More material was given to support the US government's view of Iran as a "rogue state" this week as the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, on Monday said that Iran has violated UN resolutions by activating new equipment to enrich uranium more efficiently at a facility in Natanz.
The effort was in line with the announcement by Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad on February 11 that Iran was on schedule to enrich uranium to 20% in order to power a Tehran nuclear research reactor, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman was quoted by the Tehran Times as saying on Tuesday. He added that it was regarded as a peaceful nuclear activity and considered a legitimate right of all countries committed to the IAEA. The move to enrich uranium to 20% purity means Iran could advance to making weapons-grade material.
A third reason why Castro may be correct in his prediction that any conflict with Iran will degenerate into a nuclear one is that the US is overstretched in two wars and has numerous other commitments around the world and, as a result, is incapable of sustaining a protracted war with Iran, perhaps short of reinstating a mandatory draft. In case a war breaks out and Iran through its armed forces gains some ground, the US may resort to nuclear bombs to inflict heavy damage on its Iranian enemy.
The fourth reason why a flare-up between Iran and US may turn nuclear is that a war with Iran may actually go badly for the US and/or Israel initially, eg, the Iranians may put up fierce resistance and close down the Strait of Hormuz, thus imperiling the West's access to Middle East oil, so leading to a retaliatory nuclear reaction by the US in the name of a speedy resolution of the conflict.
Fifth, Israel, which has several hundred nuclear warheads, may unpack some of its hitherto clandestine nuclear power against Iran to defeat Iran militarily and thus acquire unchallenged hegemony in the region.
Sixth, Castro's premonition about the nuclear potential of any military conflict between the US and Israel against Iran must be drawn from Castro's long military career and his keen knowledge of the spiraling dynamic of an unpredictable asymmetrical warfare that could be brought to stable conclusion by resorting to nuclear weapons. Such a strategy may assure that the defeated Iranians would not dare continue with a clandestine nuclear program after being delivered a total defeat, whereas a conventional war may fall short of such finality.
Despite all this, it is hard to imagine how a one-sided and limited nuclear offensive against non-nuclear Iran would be grave to the level of a "nuclear holocaust?" Iran has no strategic nuclear ally that would rush to defend it against a unilateral strike that is likely to be Iran-focused and on select targets with limited civilian populations.
The feasibility of a nuclear strike on Iran rests on its limited and targeted nature and the reasonable assurance that there would be no nuclear backlash, at least for the foreseeable future.
For Iran, however, the price could be exorbitantly high in human and physical terms, thus deserving all the alarm bells sounded by Castro, who has openly speculated that the US's declared possession of a blueprint for a possible attack on Iran has a nuclear dimension.
His intervention must therefore be interpreted as both timely and even effective, given the absence of an explicit dismissal by the White House. Washington's meaningful silence in response to Castro's warnings is less a sign of inattention to the Cuban revolutionary who is grappling with health problems and more evidence of the US's unwillingness to forego the nuclear option with regard to Iran.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy