After the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end the war in the Pacific, many assumed that such armaments were too horrible to use again. There seemed to be a general taboo on their further military use. From a strategic perspective, nuclear weapons were seen primarily as instruments of deterrence rather than war-fighting.
American decision-makers, however, have long held a weak psychological firewall separating nuclear from conventional weapons. Nuclear weapons are part of a continuum of violence. Strong conventional military actions–Korea or Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan–may seem more conflictual than low-level nuclear strikes. Tactical nuclear weapons have been a standard military option in strategic doctrine since the late 1950’s.
Attacks on Iranian nuclear targets may further attenuate the distinction between conventional and nuclear weapons. Western leaders now talk of using bunker busting bombs against Iran’s hardened underground nuclear sites. The targets by themselves ensure that the strikes will have a nuclear element. In addition, the munitions may have depleted uranium or other nuclear components. If this is the case, and they come into contact with Iranian nuclear energy facilities, the war may be nuclear at both ends.
The weakness of the nuclear taboo suggests that there will be little public outcry, at least in the West, about the nuclear dimension of the conflict. In the target zone, however, the response may be much different. Attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities will motivate counterattack ambitions in many of the people who have been attacked and those who identify with them. Mirroring the initial attacks, counter-attack rhetoric can also include a nuclear component. All of this will further erode the nuclear taboo for future generations, with dangerous human and environmental consequences.