Iran, Israel, and the Effects of Nuclear Conflict in the Middle East

Much of the debate over proliferation focuses on the possession of nuclear weapons rather than their use in warfighting and their effects. History is a grim warning, however, that deterrence does not always work and rational bargaining often fails. Abdullah Toukan and Anthony H. Cordesman have developed a new briefing that focuses on the impact of actually using nuclear weapons of different yields on three illustrate sets of targets in the Middle East: Iran, Israel, and Jordan.

This analysis is entitled “Iran, Israel, and the Effects of Nuclear Conflict in the Middle East” and is available on the CSIS web site at:

There is no way at this point in time to know the sophistication of the delivery system that might be used, the nature and yield of the weapon, choices about targeting, and decisions like height of burst. As the briefing shows, all have a massive impact on the real world effects of a nuclear strike.

Grim as these data are, they may understate the risks. The highest yield chosen is 500 kilotons, but a long-establish nuclear power like Israel may well have thermonuclear weapons. It is also possible that an Iranian-driven nuclear arms race in the Middle East could lead to the US providing guarantees to friendly Arab Gulf states and Israel – the kind of “extended deterrence” or “nuclear umbrella” that the US provided to Europe during the Cold War. In this case, an Iranian nuclear strike on a target protected by the US might trigger US retaliation with weapons whose yield exceeded a megaton, particularly if Iran should hit a population center in its first strike.

The data on fall out also assume relatively prompt effects. It is clear from a wide variety of test data and simulations that the long term death rate from cancer and other causes can be far higher and extend well beyond a decade after the use of a weapon – depending on the target, weather conditions, height of burst, and the material affected. The reader should also be aware that a combination economic damage and the destruction of medical facilities could trigger serious additional casualties.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy

Abdullah Toukan