An Attack on Iran Would Be a Global Disaster: Why Urban Planners Once Again Need to Reject Unprovoked War

By Michael Dudley

As the United States was preparing for its military assault on Iraq in 2003, Planners Network issued a statement, “Urban Planners Oppose the War in Iraq” (Reprinted in PN 155). Among the considerations in this statement were concerns over the threat of destruction to physical infrastructure—especially because Iraq is the cradle of civilization—the certainty of widespread human misery and the injustice of imposing military force over a civilian population.

Five years later, we once again find ourselves contending with a barrage of official and media-promulgated calls to attack another nation. This time, it is Iran that is being demonized, both as a nuclear threat and for its alleged interference in the affairs of its neighbors. Under provisions of the United Nations Charter, nations may not openly threaten others with armed attack, but so intense has this rhetoric become that it is part of mainstream political discourse in the United States.

Under whatever pretext, the current administration appears to be determined to attack Iran. According to numerous journalists and analysts, preparations for such an attack have been underway for some time, and the forces necessary for the attack are all in place.

Concern over the imminence of the attack is such that on 8 May 2008, House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers, Jr. issued a statement calling on President George W. Bush to respect the provisions of the Constitution granting war-making powers only to Congress, and threatening him with impeachment proceedings if he did not.

At the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Miami this June, a coalition of thirty mayors allied with CODEPINK, Global Exchange and Cities for Peace tabled a “National Mayors’ Resolution for Diplomacy with Iran.” Citing the already terrible burden America’s cities have borne from the current war in Iraq, the mayors oppose further military action that would divert resources away from infrastructure, education and other domestic needs. While the bid was not successful, the motion’s supporters hope to get 100 mayors on board to submit it to Congress in September.

While many observers are recognizing that the threat of yet another catastrophic war appears to be very real, there has not been the corresponding widespread public outcry that greeted the buildup to the Iraq War in 2003. It is as if there is an aura of disbelief—or more worryingly, resignation—surrounding the whole crisis.

The need for organized opposition to war is even more necessary now than it was in 2003, however, because this war may well be a nuclear one. Whether through the direct use of nuclear weapons by the United States or Israel, or through the destruction of operational nuclear facilities by other means, the plans as they are publicly known portend huge civilian casualties and widespread nuclear pollution.

The Pentagon has drawn up plans to strike over a thousand sites in Iran, many of them related to its nuclear industry. To do so, it intends to use so-called “bunker-buster” bombs that would scatter vast clouds of intensely radioactive sand across much of Central Asia. Many of Iran’s nuclear facilities are in or near urban areas, including Tehran, a modern cosmopolitan city with a population of over 12 million people, and Esfahan, a UNESCO World Heritage city with a population of over 3 million people. As well, the attack will seek to eliminate persons with expert knowledge in the field of nuclear fission, so universities will surely be targeted.

The number of projected civilian deaths in populated areas would be astronomical. The organization Physicians for Social Responsibility warned in its May 2006 fact sheet “Medical Consequences of a Nuclear Attack on Iran” that within two days of an attack on nuclear facilities at Esfahan and Natanz, nearly 3 million people could succumb to blast effects and lethal levels of radiation, and more than 10 million people in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India would likely suffer or die from radiation-induced illnesses in the months and years to come. Keep in mind this projection is based on the bombing of just two nuclear sites.

Clearly, the human scale of the death and misery that would follow an attack on Iran is hardly imaginable. But the resulting chaos would not be limited to physical destruction and genetic ruin within the targeted region. An attack on Iran could also threaten the entire global economy.

If attacked, Iran would be quite capable of shutting down not just its own oil exports, but blocking the Strait of Hormuz to all oil traffic from other countries in the region. Oil prices could then, according to some estimates, top $200 a barrel, prompting Canadian journalist Gwynne Dyer to warn that this could in effect mean the “end of the present economic era.” Our current woes with the mortgage crisis and recession will be nothing compared to the economic devastation that could result.

Yet, for all the horrific consequences of such an attack, the rhetoric surrounding Iran has taken on apocalyptic importance that is completely unwarranted. The public is being told that the only choice is to bomb Iran now, or face a nuclear Iran in the future, one which would not hesitate to destroy Israel. The widespread assumption of genocidal intentions on the part of President Ahmadinejad, however, is quite unfounded. He never said he would “wipe Israel off the map,” instead, his statement translates as “the regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time”—much in the same way as did the old Soviet regime. On top of this are repeated official and media assertions of Iran’s nuclear capabilities—despite U.S. intelligence reports denying Iranian nuclear weapons development since at least 2003.

In other words, Americans are once again being led into a war based on falsehoods, which are being accepted by the media as conventional wisdom. Such passivity would have terminal consequences.

If nuclear weapons were used, millions would die. If radioactive fallout from conventionally-bombed nuclear facilities spreads across the Middle East and Central Asia, we would see an ecological crisis of unprecedented scale, and millions of environmental refugees. If energy prices skyrocket in the wake of the attack as they are expected to, every aspect of the modern city with which we are concerned—from food delivery to home heating to construction to transportation—would be seriously affected.

Given the extreme nature of the threatened action, the increasingly bellicose rhetoric surrounding it and the profound consequences that would befall cities both in the Middle East and around the world if Iran is attacked, it is once again time for civil society—including professional bodies, associations and activists—to reject the threat of illegal, unjustifiable and unilateral war. As was the case in 2003, I believe this movement must include urban planners.

I call on Planners Network to support and join with the coalition of mayors, CODEPINK, Global Exchange and Cities for Peace in formally articulating its opposition and insist that the United States engage in diplomacy, not war, in its dealings with Iran.

Passionate as we are about the health of human communities, the future of the city and the preservation of the natural world, we cannot remain silent when all these are so casually threatened with destruction and contamination.

Michael Dudley (m.dudley(at)uwinnipeg(dot)ca) is a research associate at the Institute of Urban Studies at the University of Winnipeg. He blogs at:

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