Living on the Fault Line
A major earthquake isn’t likely here, but if it comes, watch out.
Posted June 15, 2010 by Wayne J. Guglielmo
This chart shows the location of the Ramapo Fault System, the longest and one of the oldest systems of cracks in the earth’s crust in the Northeast. It also shows the location of all earthquakes of magnitude 2.5 or greater in New Jersey during the last 50 years. The circle in blue indicates the largest known Jersey quake.
The couple checked with Burns’s parents, who live in nearby Basking Ridge, and they, too, had heard and felt something, which they thought might have been an earthquake. A call by Burns some 20 minutes later to the Bernardsville Police Department—one of many curious and occasionally panicky inquiries that Sunday morning, according to the officer in charge, Sergeant John Remian—confirmed their suspicion: A magnitude 2.6 earthquake, its epicenter in Peapack/Gladstone, about seven miles from Bernardsville, had hit the area. A smaller aftershock followed about two and a half hours later.
After this year’s epic earthquakes in Haiti, Chile, Mexico, Indonesia, and China, the 2.6 quake and aftershock that shook parts of New Jersey in February may seem minor league, even to the Somerset County residents who experienced them. On the exponential Richter Scale, a magnitude 7.0 quake like the one that hit Haiti in January is almost 4 million times stronger than a quake of 2.6 magnitude. But comparisons of magnitude don’t tell the whole story.
Northern New Jersey straddles the Ramapo Fault, a significant ancient crack in the earth’s crust. The longest fault in the Northeast, it begins in Pennsylvania and moves into New Jersey, trending northeast through Hunterdon, Somerset, Morris, Passaic, and Bergen counties before terminating in New York’s Westchester County, not far from the Indian Point Energy Center, a nuclear power plant. And though scientists dispute how active this roughly 200 million-year-old fault really is, many earthquakes in the state’s surprisingly varied seismic history are believed to have occurred on or near it. The fault line is visible at ground level and likely extends as deep as nine miles below the surface.
During the past 230 years or so, New Jersey has been at the epicenter of nearly 170 earthquakes, according to data compiled by the New Jersey Geological Survey, part of the United States Department of Environmental Protection. The largest known quake struck in 1783, somewhere west of New York City, perhaps in Sussex County. It’s typically listed as 5.3 in magnitude, though that’s an estimate by seismologists who are quick to point out that the concept of magnitude—measuring the relative size of an earthquake—was not introduced until 1935 by Charles Richter and Beno Gutenberg. Still, for quakes prior to that, scientists are not just guessing.
“We can figure out the damage at the time by going back to old records and newspaper accounts,” says Won-Young Kim, a senior research scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York, directly across the New Jersey border. “Once the amount and extent of contemporary damage has been established,” Kim says, “we’re then able to gauge the pattern of ground shaking or intensity of the event—and from there extrapolate its probable magnitude.”
Other earthquakes of magnitude 5 or higher have been felt in New Jersey, although their epicenters laying near New York City. One—which took place in 1737 and was said to have been felt as far north as Boston and as far south as northern Delaware—was probably in the 5 to 5.5 range. In 1884, an earthquake of similar magnitude occurred off New York’s Rockaway Beach. This well-documented event pulled houses off their foundations and caused steeples to topple as far west as Rahway. The shock wave, scientists believe, was felt over 70,000 square miles, from Vermont to Maryland.
Among the largest sub-5 magnitude earthquakes with epicenters in New Jersey, two (a 3.8 and a 4.0) took place on the same day in 1938 in the Lakehurst area in Ocean County. On August 26, 2003, a 3.5 magnitude quake shook the Frenchtown/Milford area in Hunterdon County. On February 3 of last year, a 3.0 magnitude quake occurred in the Morris County town of Mendham. “A lot of people felt this one because of the intense shaking, although the area of intensity wasn’t very wide,” says Lamont-Doherty’s Kim, who visited the site after the event.
After examining the known historical and geological record, Kim and other seismologists have found no clear evidence that an earthquake of greater than 5.3 to 5.5 magnitude has taken place in this area going back to 1737. This doesn’t mean, of course, that one did not take place in the more remote past or that one will not occur in the future; it simply means that a very large quake is less likely to occur here than in other places in the east where the seismic hazard is greater, including areas in South Carolina and northeastern New York State.
But no area on the East Coast is as densely populated or as heavily built-up as parts of New Jersey and its neighbors. For this reason, scientists refer to the Greater New York City-Philadelphia area, which includes New Jersey’s biggest cities, as one of “low earthquake hazard but high vulnerability.” Put simply, the Big One isn’t likely here—but if it comes, especially in certain locations, watch out.
Given this low-hazard, high-vulnerability scenario, how far along are scientists in their efforts to predict larger magnitude earthquakes in the New Jersey area? The answer is complex, complicated by the state’s geographical position, its unique geological history, the state of seismology itself, and the continuing debate over the exact nature and activity of the Ramapo Fault.
Over millions of years, New Jersey developed four distinct physiographic provinces or regions, which divide the state into a series of diagonal slices, each with its own terrain, rock type, and geological landforms.
The northernmost slice is the Valley and Ridge, comprising major portions of Sussex and Warren counties. The southernmost slice is the Coastal Plain, a huge expanse that covers some three-fifths of the state, including all of the Shore counties. Dividing the rest of the state are the Highlands, an area for the most part of solid but brittle rock right below the Valley and Ridge, and the lower lands of the Piedmont, which occupy all of Essex, Hudson, and Union counties, most of Bergen, Hunterdon, and Somerset, and parts of Middlesex, Morris, and Passaic.
For earthquake monitors and scientists, the formation of these last two provinces—the Highlands and the Piedmont—are of special interest. To understand why, consider that prior to the appearance of the Atlantic Ocean, today’s Africa was snuggled cozily up against North America and surrounded by a single enormous ocean. “At that point, you could have had exits off the New Jersey Turnpike for Morocco,” says Alexander Gates, professor of geology and chair of the department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Rutgers-Newark.
Under the pressure of circulating material within the Earth’s super-hot middle layer, or mantle, what was once a single continent—one that is thought to have included today’s other continents as well—began to stretch and eventually break, producing numerous cracks or faults and ultimately separating to form what became the Atlantic Ocean. In our area, the longest and most active of these many cracks was the Ramapo Fault, which, through a process known as normal faulting, caused one side of the earth’s crust to slip lower—the Piedmont—relative to the other side—the Highlands. “All this occurred about 225 million years ago,” says Gates. “Back then, you were talking about thousands of feet between the Highlands and the Piedmont and a very active Ramapo Fault.”
The Earth’s crust, which is 20 to 25 miles thick, is not a single, solid shell, but is broken into seven vast tectonic plates, which drift atop the soft, underlying mantle. Although the northeast-trending Ramapo Fault neatly divides two of New Jersey’s four physiographic provinces, it does not form a so-called plate boundary, as does California’s infamous San Andreas Fault. As many Californians know all too well, this giant fault forms the boundary between two plates—to the west, the Pacific Plate, and to the east, the North American Plate; these rub up against each other, producing huge stresses and a regularly repeating pattern of larger earthquakes.
The Ramapo Fault sits on the North American Plate, which extends past the East Coast to the middle of the Atlantic, where it meets the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, an underwater mountain range in constant flux. The consequences of this intraplate setting are huge: First, as Gates points out, “The predictability of bigger earthquakes on…[such] settings is exceedingly poor, because they don’t occur very often.” Second, the intraplate setting makes it more difficult to link our earthquakes to a major cause or fault, as monitors in California can often do.
This second bit of uncertainty is especially troubling for some people, including some in the media who want a neat story. To get around it, they ignore the differences between plate settings and link all of New Jersey’s earthquakes, either directly or implicitly, to the Ramapo Fault. In effect, such people want the Ramapo Fault “to look like the San Andreas Fault,” says Gates. “They want to be able to point to one big fault that’s causing all of our earthquakes.”
Gates does not think that’s the case, and he has been working with colleagues for a number of years to prove it. “What we have found is that there are smaller faults that generally cut from east to west across the northeast-trending Ramapo Fault,” he explains. “These much smaller faults are all over the place, and they’re actually the ones that are the active faults in the area.”
But what mechanisms are responsible for the formation of these apparently active auxiliary faults? One such mechanism, say scientists, is the westward pressure the Atlantic Ocean exerts on the North American Plate, which for the most part resists any movement. “I think we are in an equilibrium state most of the time,” says Lamont-Doherty’s Kim.
Still, that continuous pressure on the plate we sit on causes stress, and when that stress builds up sufficiently, the earth’s crust has a tendency to break around any weak zones. In our area, the major weak zone is the Ramapo Fault—“an ancient zone of weakness,” as Kim calls it. That zone of weakness exacerbates the formation of auxiliary faults, and thereby the series of minor earthquakes the state has experienced over the years.
All this presupposes, of course, that any intraplate stress in this area will continue to be released gradually, in a series of relatively minor earthquakes or releases of energy. But what if that were not the case? What if the stress continued to build up, and the release of large amounts of energy came all at once? In crude terms, that’s part of the story behind the giant earthquakes that rocked what is now New Madrid, Missouri, between 1811 and 1812. Although estimates of their magnitude have been revised downward in recent years to less than magnitude 8, these earthquakes are generally regarded as among the largest intraplate events to have occurred in the continental United States.
For a number of reasons—including the relatively low odds that the kind of stored energy that unleashed the New Madrid events could ever build up here—earthquakes of plus-6 magnitude are probably not in our future. Still, says Kim, even a magnitude 6 earthquake in certain areas of the state could do considerable damage, especially if its intensity or ground shaking was of sufficient strength. In a state as geologically diverse and densely populated as New Jersey, this is a crucial wild card.
Part of the job of the experts at the New Jersey Geological Survey is to assess the seismic hazards in different parts of the state. To do this, they use a computer-simulation model developed under the direction of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, known as HAZUS, for Hazards US. To assess the amount of ground shaking likely to occur in a given county during events ranging in magnitude from 5 to 7 on the Richter Scale, NJGS scientists enter three features of a county’s surface geology into their computer model. Two of these features relate to the tendency of soil in a given area to lose strength, liquefy, or slide downhill when shaken. The third and most crucial feature has to do with the depth and density of the soil itself and the type of bedrock lying below it; this is a key component in determining a region’s susceptibility to ground shaking and, therefore, in estimating the amount of building and structural damage that’s likely to occur in that region. Estimates for the various counties—nine to date have been studied—are sent to the New Jersey Office of Emergency Management, which provided partial funding for the project.
To appreciate why this element of ground geology is so crucial to earthquake modelers, consider the following: An earthquake’s intensity—which is measured on something called the Modified Mercalli Scale—is related to a number of factors. The amount of energy released or the magnitude of an event is clearly a big factor. But two earthquakes of the same magnitude can have very different levels of intensity; in fact, it’s quite possible for a lower magnitude event to generate more ground shaking than a higher magnitude one.
In addition to magnitude, other factors that affect intensity are the distance of the observer or structure from the epicenter, where intensity is the greatest; the depth beneath the surface of the initial rupture, with shallower ruptures producing more ground shaking than deeper ones; and, most significantly, the ground geology or material that the shock wave generated by the earthquake must pass through.
As a rule, softer materials like sand and gravel shake much more intensely than harder materials, because the softer materials are comparatively inefficient energy conductors, so whatever energy is released by the quake tends to be trapped, dispersing much more slowly. (Think of a bowl of Jell-O on a table that’s shaking.)
In contrast, harder materials, like the solid rock found widely in the Highlands, are brittle and break under pressure, but conduct energy well, so that even big shock waves disperse much more rapidly through them, thereby weakening the amount of ground shaking. “If you’ve read any stories about the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, you know the most intense damage was in those flat, low areas by the Bay, where the soil is soft, and not in the hilly, rocky areas above,” says Karl Muessig, state geologist and NJGS head.
The map that accompanies the online version of the NJGS’s Earthquake Loss Estimation Study divides the state’s surface geology into five seismic soil classes, ranging from Class A, or hard rock, to Class E, or soft soil (state.nj.us/dep/njgs/enviroed/hazus.htm).
Although the weakest soils are scattered throughout the state, including the Highlands, which besides harder rock also contains areas of glacial lakes, clays, and wetlands, they are most evident in the Piedmont and the Coastal Plain. “The largest expanses of them are in coastal areas where you have salt marshes or large glacial lakes, as in parts of the Passaic River basin,” says Scott Stanford, a research scientist with NJGS and lead author of the estimate. Some of the very weakest soils, Stanford adds, are in areas of filled marshland, including places along the Hudson waterfront, around Newark Bay and the Meadowlands, and along the Arthur Kill.
Faults in these areas—and in the coastal plain generally—are far below the ground, perhaps several hundred to a thousand feet down, making identification difficult. “There are numerous faults upon which you might get earthquake movement that we can’t see, because they’re covered by younger sediments,” Stanford says.
This combination of hidden faults and weak soils worries scientists, who are all too aware that parts of the coastal plain and Piedmont are among the most densely populated and developed areas in the state. (The HAZUS computer model also has a “built environment” component, which summarizes, among other things, types of buildings in a given area.) For this reason, such areas would be in the most jeopardy in the event of a large earthquake.
“Any vulnerable structure on these weak soils would have a higher failure hazard,” Stanford says. And the scary truth is that many structures in New Jersey’s largest cities, not to mention New York City, would be vulnerable, since they’re older and built before anyone gave much thought to earthquake-related engineering and construction codes.
For example, in the study’s loss estimate for Essex County, which includes Newark, the state’s largest city, a magnitude 6 event would result in damage to 81,600 buildings, including almost 10,000 extensively or completely; 36,000 people either displaced from their homes or forced to seek short-term shelter; almost $9 million in economic losses from property damage and business interruption; and close to 3,300 injuries and 50 fatalities. (The New York City Area Consortium for Earthquake Loss Mitigation has conducted a similar assessment for New York City, at nycem.org.)
All of this suggests the central irony of New Jersey geology: The upland areas that are most prone to earthquakes—the counties in or around the Ramapo Fault, which has spawned a network of splays, or auxiliary faults—are much less densely populated and sit, for the most part, on good bedrock. These areas are not invulnerable, certainly, but, by almost all measures, they would not sustain very severe damage, even in the event of a higher magnitude earthquake. The same can’t be said for other parts of the state, where the earthquake hazard is lower but the vulnerability far greater. Here, the best we can do is to prepare—both in terms of better building codes and a constantly improving emergency response.
Meanwhile, scientists like Rutgers’s Gates struggle to understand the Earth’s quirky seismic timetable: “The big thing with earthquakes is that you can commonly predict where they are going to occur,” Gates says. “When they’re going to come, well, we’re nowhere near being able to figure that out.”
Planning for the Big One
For the men and women of the state police who manage and support the New Jersey Office of Emergency Management (OEM), the response to some events, like hurricanes, can be marshalled in advance. But an earthquake is what responders call a no-notice event.
In New Jersey, even minor earthquakes—like the one that shook parts of Somerset County in February—attract the notice of local, county, and OEM officials, who continuously monitor events around the state from their Regional Operations and Intelligence Center (The ROIC) in West Trenton, a multimillion dollar command-and-control facility that has been built to withstand 125 mph winds and a 5.5 magnitude earthquake. In the event of a very large earthquake, during which local and county resources are apt to become quickly overwhelmed, command and control authority would almost instantly pass to West Trenton.
Here, officials from the state police, representatives of a galaxy of other state agencies, and a variety of communications and other experts would assemble in the cavernous and ultra-high tech Emergency Operations Center to oversee the state’s response. “A high-level earthquake would definitely cause the governor to declare a state of emergency,” says OEM public information officer Nicholas J. Morici. “And once that takes place, our emergency operations plan would be put in motion.”
Emergency officials have modeled that plan—one that can be adapted to any no-notice event, including a terrorist attack—on response methodologies developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. At its core is a series of seventeen emergency support functions, ranging from transportation to firefighting, debris removal, search and rescue, public health, and medical services. A high-magnitude event would likely activate all of these functions, says Morici, along with the human and physical resources needed to carry them out—cranes and heavy trucks for debris removal, fire trucks and teams for firefighting, doctors and EMTs for medical services, buses and personnel carriers for transportation, and so on.
This is where an expert like Tom Rafferty comes in. Rafferty is a Geographic Information Systems Specialist attached to the OEM. His job during an emergency is to keep track electronically of which resources are where in the state, so they can be deployed quickly to where they are needed. “We have a massive database called the Resource Directory Database in which we have geolocated municipal, county, and state assets to a very detailed map of New Jersey,” Rafferty says. “That way, if there is an emergency like an earthquake going on in one area, the emergency managers can quickly say to me, for instance, ‘We have major debris and damage on this spot of the map. Show us the location of the nearest heavy hauler. Show us the next closest location,’ and so on.”
A very large quake, Rafferty says, “could overwhelm resources that we have as a state.” In that event, OEM has the authority to reach out to FEMA for additional resources and assistance. It can also call upon the private sector—the Resource Directory has been expanded to include non-government assets—and to a network of volunteers. “No one has ever said, ‘We don’t want to help,’” Rafferty says. New Jersey officials can also request assistance through the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC), an agreement among the states to help each other in times of extreme crisis.
“You always plan for the worst,” Rafferty says, “and that way when the worst doesn’t happen, you feel you can handle it if and when it does.”
Contributing editor Wayne J. Guglielmo lives in Mahwah, near the Ramapo Fault.
Terrorist operatives launch at least three rockets into the sea, train to kidnap IDF soldiers and fire machine guns and mortars as part of “Shield of Jerusalem” exercise.
Hamas operatives simulated raids on military bases and the kidnapping of soldiers in a large-scale military drill Thursday.
At least three rockets were launched into the Mediterranean Sea from the Gaza Strip during Hamas’ so-called “Shield of Jerusalem” exercise. The Hamas-aligned al-Resalah TV station published a series of videos and images in which terrorists can be seen taking part in the drill by firing machine guns and mortars and practicing abducting Israelis soldiers.
A member of Hamas’ military wing told al-Resalah that “the exercise is aimed at showing our willingness and determination against the background of the Zionist occupier’s continued violations of the Palestinian rights in Gaza.”
Meanwhile, Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Maj. Gen. Ghasan Alyan had a message for Gaza’s residents on the unit’s Arabic-language Facebook page following the indictment of one Gaza man in Israel on espionage charges.
“Hamas is selling you out,” Alyan wrote. “Today it was revealed that Hamas paid a Gaza resident, Mahmoud Ahmad, 350 shekels to use the trade permit in his possession to engage in espionage and terrorist activity against Israel.
“Residents of Gaza, know that Hamas is harming you and your welfare. If Hamas continues to jeopardize the civilian policy allowed by Israel and the departure of thousands of Gazans to work in Israel – there will be consequences that impact you and your families who earn a decent living thanks to these permits,” he said.
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BEIJING, Dec. 17 (Xinhua) — A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson on Friday refuted a U.S. claim concerning Australia-U.K.-U.S. (AUKUS) trilateral nuclear submarine cooperation, urging the three not to go ahead with the cooperation and the Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Secretariat not to have consultation with the three countries on the so-called safeguards arrangements until consensus is reached by all parties.
It has been reported that a senior U.S. State Department official, who asked not to be named, said on Thursday the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) does not prohibit Australia from working with the United States and Britain to build nuclear-powered submarines.
The world can be absolutely certain that there is no diversion of uranium to a weapons program, the official reportedly said, noting that Australia plans to equip the submarines with conventional rather than nuclear weapons, and that it has made clear that it would “not build nuclear facilities on its territory that would contribute to a weapons capability.”
Nuclear submarine cooperation under the AUKUS trilateral security partnership poses a serious risk of nuclear proliferation, and clearly violates the objective and purpose of the NPT, spokesperson Wang Wenbin told a press briefing.
He said the existing IAEA safeguards arrangement cannot effectively monitor the power reactors of nuclear submarines, therefore, there is no way to ensure that Australia won’t divert these nuclear materials to the manufacturing of nuclear weapons or nuclear explosive devices.
“The United States claims the world can be certain that there is no diversion of uranium to a weapons program, but can just a verbal commitment dispel the doubts of the international community?” the spokesperson asked. He said that the United States previously promised Russia that it would not push forward NATO’s eastward expansion, but everyone has seen how the United States broke that pledge.
Wang said AUKUS have fully exposed their “double standards,” which are bound to have far-reaching negative impacts on the resolution of regional nuclear hotspot issues, and may ultimately lead to the collapse of the international nuclear non-proliferation regime.
“If the United States can transfer weapons-grade nuclear materials to Australia, a non-nuclear-weapon state, what reason does it have to oppose the production of highly enriched uranium by other non-nuclear-weapon states?” Wang asked.
The IAEA Board of Governors in November added issues related to the trilateral nuclear submarine cooperation to its official agenda and held discussions, which reflected the serious concerns shared broadly by member states of the Board of Governors, Wang said.
“The United States claims that AUKUS would instead set ‘a precedent of the highest possible level of safeguards’ for any similar deals in the future. What qualifications do the three countries have to set standards for other countries?” Wang questioned.
Wang stressed that the safeguards issue regarding the AUKUS nuclear submarine cooperation bears on the integrity and efficacy of the IAEA and concerns the interests of all member states, and should be discussed by all IAEA member states. He said China has suggested that the IAEA should establish a special committee open to all member states to properly seek a solution acceptable to all parties.
“China maintains that, pending a consensus reached by all parties, the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia should not go ahead with relevant cooperation and the Secretariat of the IAEA should not have consultation with the three countries on the so-called safeguards arrangement,” the spokesperson said. Enditem
Tolerating a nuclear Iran?
In 1977, Israel’s deputy prime minister, Yigael Yadin, asked Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat, who was on his historic trip to Jerusalem, why the Egyptian army had not proceeded to the Sinai passes during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. ‘You have nuclear arms, haven’t you heard,’ was Sadat’s reply.
Of course, Israel’s nuclear capabilities were the stuff of rumour. To this day, Israel has never officially confirmed the existence of a nuclear program. Yet Israel’s worst-kept secret has long shaped the region’s politics, including by deterring its enemies. But can it deter Iran?
In 1967, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, and Shimon Peres, who would later serve as both prime minister and president, argued for Israel to test a primitive nuclear device, in order to deter an Egyptian attack. At the time, Israel was virtually on its own in a hostile neighbourhood. France—which had been its main arms supplier—had recently deserted it, and Israel had not yet achieved its current strategic intimacy with the United States. Ben-Gurion’s position reflected his view that Israel was an intrinsically fragile entity surrounded by mortal enemies with which war was inadvisable absent the backing of a major foreign power.
Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, Deputy Prime Minister Yigal Allon and Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin—all principled opponents of nuclearisation in the Middle East—recognisedthe country’s precarious position but resisted the temptation to demonstrate a nuclear capability. When, during the dark days of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Defence Minister Moshe Dayan revived the proposal, Israel’s leaders again resisted the temptation to flaunt—let alone deploy—nuclear weapons.
Nearly half a century later, Israel has fewer enemies in the region, having made peace with several of its neighbours. But it has gained a powerful new one in Iran, since that country’s 1979 Islamic revolution. And some are arguing that in order to deter Iran from pursuing its nuclear program, Israel should abandon its policy of ‘nuclear opacity’.
But if Israel announces its capabilities and Iran persists in its nuclear drive anyway, would Israel really mount a nuclear response against what is clearly a strategic challenge but certainly not an existential threat? Moreover, Israel’s acknowledgement of its nuclear arsenal might lend legitimacy to Iran’s own quest for nuclear weapons and encourage other regional powers, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, to follow suit.
The risks are apocalyptic. The kind of mutual deterrence that existed during the Cold War, or even today in the binary India–Pakistan conflict, would not work in the Middle East, a dysfunctional region where non-state actors and unstable regimes abound.
Iran has been dogged in its nuclear efforts. It has endured years of crippling economic sanctions, ultra-sophisticated Israeli cyber warfare against its strategic infrastructure, assassinations of its nuclear scientists, and attacks on its military targets across the Middle East.
Yet Iran is now closer than ever to mastering the full nuclear fuel cycle. It has also managed to maintain its proxy armies throughout the Middle East, and to extend its strategic influence from Yemen through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon.
Israel’s ‘Begin doctrine’—a counter-proliferation policy focused on using pre-emptive strikes to halt potential enemies’ development of weapons of mass destruction—will not stop Iran. A decade ago, Israel spent billions of dollars on preparations for a massive strike on Iran’s nuclear installations. But that strike never materialised.
Israeli air strikes did destroy Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 and a similar installation in Syria in 2007. But those were surgical operations. Using air strikes to destroy Iran’s well-dispersed, well-camouflaged and well-protected nuclear installations is unrealistic, and the effort would almost certainly lead to a major war.
While Israel’s military capabilities are unmatched by any other Middle Eastern power, it would still face serious threats. Iran would certainly respond to an attack on its nuclear installations by retaliating against Israeli targets, and perhaps against the countries that allowed Israel to use their airspace to reach Iran.
Meanwhile, Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, would begin to deploy its 150,000 missiles and rockets, which can reach every corner of Israel. Israel’s vulnerable home front, and possibly some of its vital infrastructure, would be hit hard before its air force neutralised Hezbollah—likely razing Lebanon in the process.
An international agreement is probably Israel’s—and the world’s—best hope for preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power. But while that is precisely what negotiators are currently attempting to achieve in Vienna, Iran has taken a tough bargaining position.
That is not entirely unjustified. After all, it was the United States (with Israel’s complicity) that withdrew unilaterally from the 2015 nuclear agreement in 2018, even though Iran had not violated its obligations. And Europe failed to keep its promise to help Iran bypass the sanctions the US subsequently reimposed. Furthermore, Iran’s interlocutors in Vienna—the countries that are preaching against proliferation—are mostly nuclear powers themselves.
This perceived hypocrisy likely reinforces Iranian leaders’ belief that the real danger lies in not developing nuclear weapons. If Ukraine had not surrendered its Soviet-era nuclear arsenal (then the world’s third largest) in 1994, in exchange for American assurances that Russia would respect its sovereignty, it might still have Crimea, and it might not be watching with concern as Russian troops mass on its border. Likewise, a nuclear-armed Iraq would not have been attacked by the US and its allies in 2003. North Korea’s nuclear capabilities have so far kept it immune from such an attack.
With this in mind, Iran’s leaders might be thinking like Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was 50 years ago. Pakistanis, Bhutto declared, would ‘eat grass, even go hungry’ if that is what it took to develop their own nuclear bomb.
The talks in Vienna can still lead to an agreement. But, with Iran’s leaders largely convinced that a nuclear weapon is their best protection, the only durable way to prevent Iran from mastering the enrichment cycle and, ultimately, building an operational nuclear weapon probably lies in regime change. This was the position of key intelligence authorities in Israel a generation ago, when Iran’s nuclear program was still in its infancy. Given how resilient the Islamic Republic has proven to be, it seems that the world may well eventually have to tolerate an Iranian nuclear bomb, just as it has learned to live with the Indian and Pakistani arsenals.
Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister, is vice president of the Toledo International Center for Peace. He is the author of Scars of war, wounds of peace: the Israeli–Arab tragedy. This article is presented in partnership with Project Syndicate © 2021. Image: Majid Saeedi/Getty Images.
2021 Notebook: The war in Gaza and the razing of AP’s office
THE BACKGROUND: An 11-day war between Israel and Gaza’s ruling Hamas militant group in May left over 260 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead.
It was the fourth war between the bitter enemies since Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007, with fighting erupting after weeks of tensions and clashes between Palestinian demonstrators and Israeli police in contested east Jerusalem.
Israeli aircraft struck hundreds of targets in Gaza, while Hamas launched over 4,000 rockets at Israel. In a first, the violence also spilled over into clashes between Jews and Arabs inside Israel as well.
In Gaza, tens of thousands of homes were damaged and more than 2,000 others were destroyed. Israel has eased its blockade of Gaza as part of Egyptian-led efforts to broker a longer-term cease-fire, but reconstruction efforts have yet to get off the ground. In rocket-scarred southern Israel, residents remain jittery.
On the sixth day of the war, the Israeli air force bombed the 12-story al-Jalaa tower, roughly an hour after ordering all occupants to evacuate. No one was injured, but the building was destroyed. The building was home to offices belonging to The Associated Press, the Al-Jazeera satellite channel as well as dozens of families. Israel has said it had evidence Hamas was using the building for military purposes, though it has not released any evidence publicly to back the claim.
Here, some AP journalists involved in the coverage reflect on the story and their own experiences.
FARES AKRAM, correspondent, Gaza City, Gaza Strip
The destruction of the AP office felt like an attack on all of us. The office had been our professional home for years — and most of us had been sleeping there throughout the war, wrongly thinking that it was a rare safe place in Gaza.
Just days earlier, my family farmhouse was also destroyed by a bomb from an Israeli fighter jet. The house, located near the Israeli frontier in northern Gaza, had provided a precious escape from Gaza’s concrete jungle of homes and dirty streets.
After the war, I left Gaza through Egypt and went to visit my wife and children who have been living in Canada. I had not seen them for nearly two years due to coronavirus lockdowns. The four-month visit was the longest time I’ve ever stayed outside the tiny, impoverished crowded land on the Mediterranean that I call home.
Six months later, I wish I could say that things are getting better. But nothing has improved.
Large-scale reconstruction has yet to start. The nearly 15-year blockade that Israel and Egypt maintain on Gaza is still in place. Efforts to reach a deep, long-term cease-fire are stalled, and fears of another war breaking out are widespread. The process of rebuilding our office is moving slowly.
The crater made by the bomb on our farmhouse is still there, and the house is still in ruins.
It was my favorite spot in Gaza, something to look forward to on the weekends. It was where I could spend cold winter nights warmed by a burning bonfire or where my family would bake pastries and other dishes on the wood-fired clay oven. I self-isolated there during the lockdown because of the feeling of freedom walking in the field or feeding the chickens.
All of these lovely things have become a memory.
JOSEF FEDERMAN, bureau chief, Jerusalem:
The airstrike happened on the sixth day of the war. During those first few days, we had worked out a nice little routine. Karin Laub, the Mideast news director, would keep an eye on the story in the mornings while I would rest and do TV interviews. Then I would come in and handle the story and write the night’s big roundup at the end of the day.
The airstrike happened on a Saturday, and it was actually kind of quiet. I went out and did a TV interview for Chinese television. Whenever I did TV, I would turn my phone off and put it down so I could focus on the interview. So, I turned my phone off for about 10 minutes.
When I turned it back on, there were eight missed calls from the office. I thought, “What the heck is going on?” And then as I was staring at my phone, it rang again and it was Karin and she was frantic. We had just received a warning from the Israeli army that the building with our Gaza office was going to be blown up. “We’ve been given an hour to clear out,” she said, before asking me to call my contacts to see if we could stop it.
A couple of days earlier, I had given the Israeli military the GPS coordinates of our office to make sure it wasn’t accidentally bombed. So I called them to see if they could stop this. The spokesman was very nice, asked for more details about the building and said he would make some phone calls to see if anything could be done.
I then called the Foreign Ministry, telling the spokesman that this would be a public relations disaster if Israel destroyed the AP office. He also promised to make some calls and see if he could help.
Then, I called the prime minister’s office and got a very different reply. There were no offers of help. The spokesman merely said: “Make sure you get your people out of there and they are safe.”
That’s when I knew the office was going to get blown up.
I rushed home, flipped on the TV and watched our office get blown up in real time on live TV.
This wasn’t the worst thing we’ve dealt with. In 2014, two people were killed in an accident, an explosion in Gaza, and another staffer was badly wounded. So, all things considered, this wasn’t the worst outcome. At least everybody was safe.
They had an hour to get out of there. They grabbed what they could. And the amazing thing is, they went to work. They ran down the stairs, they got out of the building and they took incredible footage: They interviewed people, they spoke to the owner of the building who was also pleading with the army not to do this, they got incredible photos. We wrote some great stories and a first-person account. The resilience is amazing.
It’s not easy, but everybody kind of knows what to do. They spring to life, everybody knows their job, and they just go to work and take care of business.
For a full overview of the events that shaped 2021, “A Year That Changed Us: 12 Months in 150 Photos,” a collection of AP photos and journalists’ recollections, is available now: https://www.ap.org/books/a-year-that-changed-us
© AHMAD AL-RUBAYE
Acase in an Iraqi court filed by the Hashed al-Shaabi former paramilitary alliance contesting its defeat in the October 10 parliamentary election was adjourned Monday until next week.
Judge Jassem Mohamed Aboud, whose court must rule on the complaint before final results are ratified and a new parliament is inaugurated, adjourned the case until December 22 after a procedural hearing.
Shiite Muslim firebrand cleric Moqtada Sadr was declared on November 30 as the biggest winner of the election.
Sadr’s movement won nearly a fifth of the seats — 73 out of the assembly’s total 329, well ahead of the 17 seats of the Fatah (Conquest) Alliance, the political arm of the pro-Iran Hashed.
Hashed leaders have rejected the result — sharply down from their 48 seats in the outgoing assembly — as a “fraud”.
Mohamed Majid al-Saadi, lawyer for the plaintiffs, told AFP at the court that the aim of the Hashed’s appeal was “to have the results annulled” because of “serious violations”.
It has also protested at alleged failings of a new electronic machine used for the election and organised demonstrations.
Tensions over fraud allegations and violence culminated on November 7 in an assassination attempt against Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi, from which he emerged unharmed.
No group has claimed the attack.
UN special representative Jeanine Hennis has noted that “so far and as stated by the Iraqi judiciary, there is no evidence of systemic fraud”.
After a final court ruling, parliament will hold its inaugural session and elect a president, who will in turn appoint a prime minister to be approved by the legislature.
In multi-confessional and multi-ethnic Iraq, the formation of governments has involved complex negotiations ever since the 2003 US-led invasion toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.
Iran nuke talks adjourn, Europeans say pause disappointing
A national flag of Iran waves in front of the building of the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, in Vienna, Austria, Friday, Dec. 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Michael Gruber)KIYOKO METZLERFri, December 17, 2021, 7:39 AM·3 min read
VIENNA (AP) — Talks aimed at salvaging Iran’s tattered 2015 nuclear deal with world powers adjourned Friday to allow the Iranian negotiator to return home for consultations after a round marked by tensions over new demands from Tehran.
European diplomats said it was “a disappointing pause” and that negotiators in Vienna are “rapidly reaching the end of the road.” However, they did point to “some technical progress” so far.
Participants said they aim to resume quickly, though they haven’t yet firmed up a date. China’s chief negotiator, Wan Qun, said the talks will “resume hopefully before the end of the year.” Enrique Mora, the European Union diplomat who chaired the talks, echoed that, saying: “I hope it will be during 2021.”
The current talks in Vienna among the remaining signatories to the 2015 nuclear agreement — known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA — opened on Nov. 29, after more than five months, a gap caused by the arrival of a new hard-line government in Iran. There was also a short break last week as delegations returned home to consult with their governments.
The United States has participated indirectly in the ongoing talks because it withdrew from the accord in 2018 under then-President Donald Trump. President Joe Biden has signaled that he wants to rejoin the deal.
“For the eighth round, we have a lot of work ahead, a very complex task, I have to say,” Mora said. “Difficult political decisions have to be taken.”
The accord was meant to rein in Iran’s nuclear program in return for loosened economic sanctions. Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China are still part of the agreement.
Negotiators from the three Western European powers said they “respect” Iranian negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani’s decision to return to Tehran “though it brings a disappointing pause in negotiations.” The said the other participants were ready to continue the talks, and stressed that “this negotiation is becoming ever more urgent.”
After twice expressing frustration during the recent talks, they said that “there has been some technical progress in the last 24 hours, but this only takes us back nearer to where the talks stood in June.”
Following the U.S. decision to withdraw from the deal and reimpose sanctions on Iran, Tehran has ramped up its nuclear program again by enriching uranium well beyond the thresholds allowed in the agreement. Iran has also restricted monitors from the U.N. atomic watchdog from accessing its nuclear facilities, raising concerns about what the country is doing out of view.
Diplomats from the three European nations said earlier this week that they were “losing precious time dealing with new Iranian positions inconsistent with the JCPOA or that go beyond it.”
Still, there was one sign of progress on a related issue when Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency reached a deal Wednesday to reinstall cameras damaged at an Iranian site that manufactures centrifuge parts, though inspectors remain limited on what footage they can access.
“We hope that Iran is in a position to resume the talks quickly, and to engage constructively so that talks can move at a faster pace,” the European negotiators said.
Iran’s nuclear program “is now more advanced than it has ever been,” making it critical that Tehran refrain from taking further steps that escalate the situation, they said.
“As we have said, there are weeks not months before the JCPOA’s core non-proliferation benefits are lost,” they added. “We are rapidly reaching the end of the road for this negotiation.”
Associated Press writer Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.