A surprise US or Israeli air strike on Iranian nuclear sites could cause a large number of civilian as well as military casualties, said a report published yesterday.
The report, Iran: Consequences of a War, written by Paul Rogers and published by the Oxford Research Group, draws comparisons with Iraq. It said the civilian population in that country had three weeks to prepare for war in 2003, giving people the chance to flee potentially dangerous sites.
But Rogers said attacks on Iranian facilities, most of which are in densely populated areas, would come as a surprise, leaving no time for such evacuations.
"Military deaths in this first wave of attacks would be expected to be in the thousands," he said.
"Civilian deaths would be in the many hundreds at least, particularly with the requirement to target technical support for the nuclear and missile infrastructure, with many of the factories being located in urban areas," he said.
The death toll would eventually be much higher if Iran took retaliatory action and the US responded, or if the US took pre-emptive military action in addition to strikes on nuclear sites.
Rogers, of the University of Bradford's peace studies department, said: "A military operation against Iran would not ... be a short-term matter but would set in motion a complex and long-lasting confrontation."
"It follows that military action should be firmly ruled out and alternative strategies developed," he said.
US and other Western critics of Tehran say the government there is intent on securing a nuclear weapons capability. The Iranians deny this, saying they are pursuing civilian nuclear energy. The issue could still be resolved diplomatically, but both the US and Israel have said the option of air strikes remains open.
Rogers said the aim of an attack would be to set back Iran's nuclear program by at least five years. He said Britain could be drawn in as US aircraft would probably use UK bases.
He lists the expected targets as the Tehran Research Reactor, a radioisotope production facility, a range of nuclear-related laboratories, and the Kalaye Electric Company, all in Tehran, and facilities in Isfahan and Natanz.
"The new reactor nearing completion at Bushehr would be targeted, although this could be problematic once the reactor is fully fuelled and goes critical some time in 2006," he said.
"Once that has happened, any destruction of the containment structure could lead to serious problems of radioactive dispersal affecting not just the Gulf coast but west Gulf seaboards in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates," Rogers said.
"All the initial attacks would be undertaken more-or-less simultaneously, in order to kill as many of the technically competent staff as possible, therefore doing the greatest damage to longer-term prospects," he said.
Iran would be unable to prevent such an attack, as it has only limited air defenses. But Rogers said it has a large arsenal of potential responses.
Rogers also said a US or Israeli attack could help al-Qaeda by increasing the anti-US mood in the region and beyond.
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