A majority of Americans support a military strike to stop or slow Iran's nuclear weapons program. But that assumes Iran doesn't already have some.
What if Iran already has one or more nuclear weapons and the capability to make a nuclear strike on the United States - right now? If true, this would change the calculation for the American people. Then the risks of a U.S. or Israeli military attack on Iran's nuclear program would change radically.
The truth is, no one knows for sure just how far advanced Iran's nuclear weapons program is. There are sound reasons for doubting Washington's official estimates that Iran does not yet have the bomb or the ability to make a nuclear strike on the United States.
The U.S. Manhattan Project during World War II, working with 1940s-era technology to develop nuclear weapons that were then merely a theoretical possibility, succeeded in building two working atomic bombs of radically different designs - injustthreeyears. Iran supposedly has been struggling to develop nuclear weapons for 20 years, with help from nuclear-armed Russia, China and North Korea.
Iran does not have to give the world a warning by testing a nuclear weapon to have confidence it will work. The United States didn't. While the U.S. did test a complicated plutonium bomb, the atomic bomb used to destroy Hiroshima was powered by a simpler, but untested, uranium-235 design that actually was built first.
The respected Wisconsin Project, which monitors nuclear proliferation, estimates that Israel has developed a nuclear arsenal of about 200 weapons, including highly sophisticated weapons of thermonuclear design, neutron warheads and warheads miniaturized for missiles and artillery - all without nuclear testing.
So we know from our own experience that Iran could already have nuclear weapons.
Our intelligence on Iran's nuclear weapons program is poor. Much of what we know comes from the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency, whose inspectors rely on Iran's voluntary cooperation. Iran is a hard nut to crack for U.S. intelligence agencies. Last year, just before Thanksgiving, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards arrested a dozen U.S. intelligence operatives.
Iran has every reason to disinform the West about the status of its nuclear weapons program, to convince the United States and others that it is not developing nuclear weapons or that the program is still far from mature, in order to delay a U.S. or Israeli pre-emptive strike. Iran may already be building a substantial nuclear arsenal so that its nuclear-armed status will become irreversible, as in North Korea.
Privately, the Obama administration may recognize that Iran's nuclear weapons program is already irreversible but may not want to acknowledge publicly what would amount to a colossal national security failure. In June 2010, the White House National Security staff began quietly circulating to state emergency planners a manual titled "Planning Guidance for Response to a Nuclear Detonation." It encourages first responders in major cities to prepare for a terrorist nuclear attack. An estimated 200,000 Americans could die from a small nuclear weapon detonated in a major city.
But there is a much bigger threat. If the same small nuclear weapon postulated in the White House planning guide is launched to high-altitude over the United States, perhaps fired from a freighter operating off the U.S. coast, the resulting electromagnetic pulse (EMP) could collapse the national electric grid and other critical infrastructures that sustain our modern society. The Congressional EMP Commission warned in 2008 that, given our current state of unpreparedness, an EMP attack by rogue states or terrorists could kill millions of Americans from starvation, disease and societal collapse.
Iranian military writings describe making a catastrophic nuclear EMP attack to eliminate the United States as an actor on the world stage. Iran has practiced launching missiles to simulate an EMP attack, including from a vessel at sea.
So an Israeli or U.S. military strike on Iran conceivably could bring on the very nightmare we seek to prevent. A freighter armed with a nuclear missile could be operating already off the U.S. coast, perhaps moored in Venezuela or elsewhere in the Caribbean, awaiting orders from Tehran to launch an EMP attack.
What is to be done? Congress should immediately pass the Shield Act (H.R. 668), which has been languishing in the House Energy and Commerce Committee for a year, and give top priority to the bill's goal: protecting the national electric grid from an EMP. The White House should immediately add EMP to the list of threats explicitly identified in Presidential Policy Directive-8, titled "National Preparedness," issued by President Obama in March 2011. This would give top priority to achieving broad and deep protection of the electric grid and other critical infrastructures against threats that could cause their collapse.
The White House and Congress should immediately cooperate on programs to achieve regime change in Iran - by supporting and arming the majority of the Iranian people who want to overthrow the mullahs.
Regime change in Iran can start in Syria, Iran's closest ally, from arming the Syrian freedom fighters who are even now calling for our help.
Freedom in Syria will encourage freedom in Iran, be less risky than war with Iran and do more than sanctions, negotiations or war to eliminate Iran's nuclear threat.
Peter Vincent Pry is executive director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security. He served on the staffs of the EMP Commission, the House Armed Services Committee and the CIA.
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