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The Ayatollah’s Nuclear Gamble: The Human Cost of a Military Strike Against Iran’s Nuclear Facilities


Khosrow Semnani is the author of Ayatollah's Gamble, a report that offers detailed findings on the human cost of a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.


It is  close to a decade that Iran’s controversial nuclear program has been at the forefront of foreign policy debates. The U.S. has considered an array of options such as threat of a military strike, diplomatic efforts and most recently tightened sanctions against the Islamic Republic of Iran. Nevertheless, the issue remains unresolved as Iranians face worsening economic challenges under the newly implemented sanctions regime. Meanwhile, the possibility of a preemptive military strike against the Islamic Republic’s nuclear endeavors remains a strong option for both the U.S. and Israel. On the eve of the U.S. elections and with Iran’s nuclear program at the center of debates, it is critical to underline the human cost of a potential military strike on Iran’s nuclear sites.

To this end, Khosrow B. Semnani, an Iranian-American businessman and philanthropist — along with a number of policy experts and scientists — has recently released a comprehensive report that sheds light on the possible human cost of a preemptive military strike on Iran’s nuclear sites.  Semnani has prepared a report entitled “Ayatollah’s Nuclear Gamble: The Human Cost of Military Strikes Against Iran’s Nuclear Facilities” in collaboration with Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah and the Omid for Iran Foundation. What follows is a summary of a conversation with Khosrow B. Semnani about the nature and findings of the aforementioned report.

What made you take on this project?

As a professional in waste management and low-level nuclear waste processing, I have had years of experience dealing with toxics and hazardous radioactive materials. This is my profession. I have been in this business since 1971. So naturally, the question of the consequences of a possible military strike against Iran has preoccupied my mind for some time. The nuclear facilities in Iran are not empty and secluded places. People live nearby these operations and there is only so much toxic to which an individual can be exposed. This is very toxic material that, if released, could harm and kill many. The more I studied the possible consequences, the more alarmed I grew. At some point, I told myself, “This is it. Somebody has to talk about this”. So, I gathered a team of experts to launch a research project. The result is the report before you.

What are the key findings of this report?

The report describes the findings in detail. I am only going to mention a summary of three principal findings of the report here.

(1)    In evaluating the military option, some analysts have suggested that a military strike against Iran’s nuclear sites could be as simple and effective as the strike on the Iraqi nuclear site at Osirak, Saddam Hussein’s half-constructed, French-built reactor destroyed by Israel in 1981. The report found that such an analogy is false. Iran’s nuclear facilities cannot be compared to Osirak. They are operational, widespread, heavily manned, and contain hundreds of tons of highly toxic chemicals and radioactive substances. Osirak cannot be a good example to characterize Iran’s facilities, because it was not operational when it was attacked and even then 11 people died. The Iranian installations are operational and expensive with hundreds of people working in and around them. Take the example of the Isfahan nuclear site. If Isfahan is attacked, we are talking about literally thousands of people that work there and hundreds of thousands of people that live around it, whose well-being and lives will be compromised. They will become exposed to extremely dangerous, hazardous, and toxic materials.

(2)    The location of these facilities is another issue. The report identifies and discusses more than 400 locations.  These locations are spread out. We don’t know how many of these facilities (major or minor) will get bombed. But, some of them are in populated areas. For instance, the major facilities are close to or in urban settings (Isfahan, Natanz, Arak, and Bushehr). If these get bombed, we are talking about a huge human cost. In its case study section, the report presents  an estimated human cost associated with attacking the aforementioned four nuclear sites. The findings of these case studies reveal a high human cost in the case of a military strike on each facility. Among them, Isfahan presents the most sobering case. Even with conservative estimates, in case of an attack on Isfahan’s nuclear site, 12,000 to 70,000 people could be affected by toxic substances.

(3)    The Iranian government is hardly ready for any attack of this scale. The available information on the infrastructure and capacity of the Islamic Republic reveals that the government cannot deal with catastrophes of this nature and magnitude.

The estimates presented in this report are based on a wealth of data and statistics. Could you tell us about the general methodology employed in this project?

The report explains the details of our methodology. However, allow me to address some of our challenges in regards to data collection and research methodology. Due to the nature of this study, we had to be very careful in verifying the accuracy of the available data. For instance, once the initial draft of the report and the set of data used were ready, we circulated the draft among scientists and experts and asked for their feedback and evaluation. We repeated this process a number of times to ensure an eventual accurate set of findings. We only included the data for which we could present convincing justification and accurate citation. Moreover, we tried to be as transparent as possible with the information at hand. Lastly, rather than precise numbers, the report presents a series of estimates while acknowledging the uncertainties and the limitations of the verifiable data and the assumptions employed.

Who is your primary targeted audience for this report?

I initially took on this research to inform myself about the possible consequences of a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. When I got a sense of the grim realities, I decided to conduct a comprehensive research and share the findings with the general public. The most important group of audiences in my mind are the Iranian people. People know only bits and pieces of information about the possible consequences of exposure to these toxic substances. There is only limited talk, if at all, of fact-based scenarios that might occur in case of a military strike on Iran’s nuclear sites. Since the people of Iran will be the most impacted by such a strike, it is their right to have full access to information and research that demystify the consequences for them in simple terms. Luckily, this report has received some attention in Iran and the publication will also be soon available in Persian in its entirety.

Further, I hope that this report informs all those who consider the possibility of a military strike against Iran in the U.S., Israel and other places. It is also important to note that Israelis could face counter attacks by Iran which will endanger the lives of Israeli citizens. So, the human cost of a possible military strike in Iran could well have spillover effects beyond the Iranian borders.

Finally, the last group of audiences that this report seeks to reach out are commentators, journalists and columnists in various media outlets, who continuously write and discuss the possibility of a military strike in Iran. In essence, by reaching out to this group I hope to raise awareness about the subject of human casualties when discussing and considering a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

What do you hope this report to convey to relevant decision-making circles who are concerned with Iran’s nuclear program?

It is a simple message. I hope that this report and its findings remind policymakers that there needs to be a distinction between the Iranian people and the Iranian regime.  This report is not politically driven. Nevertheless, it aims to raise awareness about the human cost of a military strike. The Iranian people cannot be the entire solution to the nuclear impasse of Iran. However, they must be at least part of the solution. It is essential to go to the Iranian people, explain to them the genesis of the problem and include them in the solution. The people of Iran are already the target of their own regime’s misguided policies. They cannot also be the target of Iran’s international nuclear controversy.




Azadeh Pourzand

Currently a program manager at an international development institution focusing on the Middle East-North Africa region, Azadeh holds a Masters in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government (HKS) and an MBA from the Nyenrode Business Universiteit.

The editor-in-chief of Women's Policy Journal at Harvard Kennedy School of Government in 2009-2010, her writings have appeared in places such as International Herald Tribune, CNN International and the Huffington Post.

Born and raised in Iran, in the past years she has worked and studied in the US, Mexico, Argentina, Bangladesh, China and the Netherlands and India. While in India, she worked at a Mumbai-based foreign policy think-tank, Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations, where she co-authored a comprehensive policy paper that explored India's view of the Arab uprisings.

Azadeh is the founder and president of a start-up organization (The Siamak Pourzand Foundation), promoting freedom of expression for artists, writers, journalists and creative minds in Iran and beyond.