Which world leader is on record musing about "a world without America" - a goal he calls "attainable"? Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Until recently, it was possible to believe that whatever Mr. Ahmadinejad's intentions, Iran
was a long way from acquiring the capabilities it needs to achieve its
goals. But a blue-ribbon commission has reported to Congress on what
appears to be an Iranian drive to obtain the means to carry out an EMP
(electro-magnetic pulse) attack.
An EMP attack is produced by launching a ballistic missile with a
nuclear weapon attached -- and detonating it high above the Earth. This
produces a massive pulse of ionized particles that could damage or even
wipe out many electrical and information systems. Such an attack would
disrupt telecommunications, banking and finance, fuel and energy, food
and water supplies, emergency and government services and much more,
threatening millions of lives.
We've seen a blacked-out South Texas in the wake of Hurricane Ike.
We've seen New Orleans after Katrina. Now imagine that scenario over
most of the continental United States. There would be a "world without America" - at least as we know it.
No one disputes that Iran is developing a robust long-range missile
force. Few question that Mr. Ahmadinejad's regime is working on nuclear
weapons development. Less well-known is that Iran has conducted missile
tests from sea-based platforms, detonating warheads at the high-point
of the missile trajectory, rather at the aim point over the target.
These facts have now been documented in official government reports.
Connect the dots, and you find the picture of a workable research
program for developing a covert means to deliver an EMP attack against
the United States.
A short-range ballistic missile could be carried on one of the
thousands of commercial freighters sailing under "flags of convenience"
that sail around U.S. waters every day. Without ever piquing the
interest of the Navy, the Coast Guard, or the Customs and Border
Protection, that ship could sail within range and deliver its payload
over American territory. Even a modest warhead placed at the right spot
over the East Coast could take down 75 percent of the electrical grid.
The genius of such a covert attack is that it doesn't come with an
obvious "return address." The ship might be registered in Liberia. The
crew might be Lebanese. The ship might disappear into the night - or be
Another advantage for a would-be attacker is the bang that can be
achieved for the buck. An EMP attack would allow an enemy to wreak an
enormous amount of destruction for a modest investment. It would mean
no electricity, no food on the shelves, no phone, no fuel deliveries.
Life would look more like the barter system of the 19th century, not to
mention the millions that would die from traffic accidents, fires,
failed hospital equipment, disease and the other chaos that would
result from such an attack.
A lot can be done to deal with this terrible threat. For starters,
we need to build comprehensive missile defenses that can shoot missiles
down fired anywhere shortly after they lift off. We also need to
develop national plans to mitigate vulnerabilities to an EMP attack and
recover quickly from a strike if one does occur.
America, however, also needs to dust off its nuclear deterrent. Of
all the nations that could pull off an EMP attack or hand that capacity
to a transnational terrorist group, Iran is the only country that has
directly threatened to destroy the United States. While much America's
infrastructure is vulnerable to EMP, the nuclear strike force is not.
We need to inform Iran that if an EMP attack were unleashed on America,
Iran could well be held responsible and suffer massive nuclear
Perhaps deterrence won't work. Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis
argues that to a devout believer in Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's
apocalyptic ideology, mutually assured destruction may be "more an
inducement than a deterrent." Still, it's worth making it clear that a
steep price will be paid for such an attack.
In the end, President Reagan was right: Massive retaliation is not a
morally supportable option when there are real alternatives.
Comprehensive missile defenses, vigorous counterproliferation programs,
and making U.S. infrastructure more resilient are really the best ways
to protect and defend the nation. The next president needs to make
these a priority.
Indeed, demonstrating that America takes the threat seriously is
perhaps the best message we could send to Mr. Ahmadinejad and those he