Beyond the World news headlines
Volcano chaos: A pointer to potential Iran/Gulf smoke disruption?
As if they didn’t have enough to think about, planners trying to pin down the unintended consequences of a strike on Iran may be required to reorder their lengthy worry list.
The concern? Iceland’s volcano, or rather, the vivid reminder the exploding mountain provided to governments of the importance of civil emergency planning.
The ash clouds and the flight chaos it produced may be a foretaste, writ large, of the disruption to daily life in the Gulf that could temporarily result from military conflict and its aftermath in the area, some analysts say.
The Kuwait oil fires of the 1990-91 Gulf conflict provide an example of the confusion and damage that can result from smoke and pollution, quite apart from the popular anxiety caused by war itself, write Riad Kahwaji and Theodore Karasik of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.
In January, 1991, Iraqi forces torched hundreds of Kuwaiti oil fields, creating clouds of heavy smoke across the northern Gulf in the last moments of the conflict. Saddam Hussein’s action was mainly political, not military: in what Kuwaitis perceived as a monumental act of spite, he was laying waste to an asset he was forced to relinquish.
But the impact was dramatic. Then the world’s worst oilfield disaster, the problem was worsened by winter weather, with oil-laden rain infesting engines in the air and on the ground, they recall.
The clouds did not significantly affect military operations, which by then were virtually finished. But they caused considerable costs, complications and anxieties in the aftermath, temporarily denting confidence among some in the resilience of Kuwait’s post-war recovery efforts.
The fires burned for nine months, blotting out the sun in places around the northern Gulf and causing record low temperatures. Hundreds of tonnes of chemical compounds known as polyaromatic hydrocarbons and metal particles were propelled into the atmosphere in oilfire smoke or onto the desert floor in spilled crude oil that formed lakes.
A rapid and determined Kuwaiti effort to quell the flames in partnership with international contractors cost the small state about $1.5 billion.
An attack on Iran – whether by Israeli or US aircraft – would almost probably temporarily disrupt civil aviation in some or all of the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), leaving aside any consideration of smoke damage. But the picture becomes more complex when planners factor in possible environmental damage done by any related attack on oil facilities in the event of a regional conflict.
“A military operation against Iran means that smoke and dust will impact the GCC just as much as it will Iran,” write Kahwaji and Karasik. “Smoke in the field of operations, which can be used to cause confusion, impair vision, can disrupt civilian and military air operations. Water supplies in areas of operations are vulnerable to both intentional and accidental contamination.”
Not everyone agrees that military aviation would be affected by smoke. After all, military aircraft have equipment that can see through dust and smoke. Planes can fly around or over plumes of dust to avoid any complications to engines.
But any attempt by a combatant in a future Gulf conflict to attack regional oilfields, on either side of the waterway, could have a social and political impact perhaps as vivid as the action by Sadddam Hussein two decades ago.
And disruption to water, food and medical supplies resulting from conflict are possibilities that need to be planned for, say Kahwaji and Karasik.
For further analysis of any strike on Iran see a report by my colleague Peter Apps and a 2007 paper by Dan Plesch and Martin Butcher of the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University.