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The Munk Debate on the question of war with Iran, to be held on Monday night in Toronto, could not be more timely. With elections finally decided in the United States and scheduled for January in Israel and July in Iran, all three countries will soon have leaders operating on new mandates.

If they cannot stop the momentum towards a showdown at this point, when their new mandates are fresh, then it is possible that a sense of exhaustion with diplomacy will give way to active planning for a military confrontation in the second half of 2013 or early 2014.

What would the war look like? Israel's surgical strikes on Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007 are not good guides.

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These attacks were on single, isolated nuclear sites, both of which were "cold" – that is, not in operation. Iran's program has many sites and the key ones are "hot." They have nuclear fuel that could be dispersed over civilian populations.

A strike against Iran would have to target at least four or five key locations, but could target as many as 400 if Iran's entire nuclear industry is attacked, along with Iran's command and control, its air defence, and its naval and missile retaliatory forces.

This would be not a surgical strike but an air war against Iran, and one that is potentially open-ended if Iran defends itself and strikes back.

It is ironic that after two trillion-dollar wars in Western Asia, thinking in North America and Europe about a possible third war remains so muddled. Supporters of war with Iran seem to justify it based on exhaustion with diplomacy and impatience with sanctions.

This isn't good enough.

After two wars that failed to achieve their own strategic objectives, proponents of a third war should show how this one would be different and successful.

First, they should show that this war would achieve a strategic objective, and not just a tactical success. Second, they should demonstrate that the risks of the war would be manageable.

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On both these counts, there is room for doubt.

U.S. President Barack Obama has been clear about his strategic objective. His aim is to prevent the development of Iranian nuclear weapons, not contain them.

It is curious, therefore, that even the strongest supporters of a military showdown admit that Iran's nuclear program would not be stopped by an attack. War would only delay it.

This is the strongest point made by a report issued last September by The Iran Project and endorsed by a senior bipartisan group of retired American political, diplomatic and military leaders.

It estimates that an Israeli strike would delay Iran's program by one to two years if Israel strikes alone, or by three to four years if the United States strikes with its bigger arsenal. After that, more military measures could be needed.

The cost of this war will be severe. There have been many articles about the benefits and risks of a war, but one aspect of the conflict has been overlooked – the human cost to Iran.

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The nature of this war's civilian casualties will be central to how Iran's leaders could use the conflict cynically to further their own political ends.

Khoshrow Semnani of the University of Utah has estimated the impact of strikes against four key Iranian nuclear sites in a new study entitled The Ayatollah's Nuclear Gamble.

One of the sites is the Isfahan Uranium Conversion Facility. It manufactures uranium hexafluoride for the enrichment facilities in Natanz and Fordow and is located only about 16 kilometres from the centre of Isfahan – a city that is Iran's Florence or Kyoto, and has some of the world's most famous Islamic art and architecture. It has a population of about 1.8 million people.

Under prevailing winds, the toxic plume from an attack would reach the city's suburbs in less than an hour. According to the report, tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of people would be exposed to the chemical consequences of highly reactive fluorine compounds thrown up by the raid.

At the highest concentrations, the effects on civilians will not be dissimilar to the chemical attacks during the First World War or the Iraqi chemical attacks during the Iran-Iraq war. Isfahan could suffer 1,000 casualties at the bomb site itself and 5,000 to 70,000 casualties in the city. This is a potential humanitarian catastrophe that poses a moral challenge to the leaders of the United States, Israel and Iran.

The tactical success of a military strike is unlikely to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and its horrific effects on Iranian civilians will sink the United States and its allies in a moral quagmire that Iran's Supreme Leader will use to reinforce his hold over his people and delay the political evolution of Iran for a generation.

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John Mundy is a former Canadian ambassador to Iran and was expelled in 2007. Now retired, he is a visiting Associate at the University of Ottawa's Centre for International Policy Studies.

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