Iran, Israel, and Nuclear War

An Illustrative Scenario Analysis

The attached briefing provides the material used in a scenario analysis and interactive game that looks at some of the consequences of a future nuclear exchange between Israel and Iran, and the possible impact of its expansion to cover targets in Syria, Egypt, and the Gulf.

There is no way to predict the forces each side will have in the future, or how they might target those forces and use them in war. It does seem clear, however, that both sides would probably be forced to target the other's population centers in any scenario that escalated beyond an initial demonstrative strike.

It also seems likely that such a conflict would quickly become existential in the sense that both sides would seek to inflict the maximum possible casualties on its opponent, and to destroy its ability to recover as a nation.

The analysis indicates that Israeli might have the near to mid-term advantage in such a struggle, at least in terms of the ability to inflict more damage on the Persian ethnic population and economy of Iran. Iran is much larger than Israel, but its population is heavily urbanized and extremely vulnerable to boosted and thermonuclear weapons.

This advantage seems likely to continue until Iran obtained boosted or thermonuclear weapons. The outcome would be so costly to both sides, however, any such advantage would little or no practical value. It is unclear that either nation could reconstitute itself on anything like a prewar basis, if at all.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy