By R. James Woolsey and Peter Vincent Pry
Illustration by Greg Groesch/The Washington Times
Our attention these days with regard to security is understandably riveted on the Islamic State, or ISIS, and its hideous decapitations, rapes and live immolations. We must deal with the Islamic State, but it is not the gravest threat we face. The Israelis are right — we should awaken to the fact that the coming of a nuclear Iran holds special dangers and requires particularly urgent attention. There are four driving reasons. First, the Mideast abounds in clashing religious beliefs, but there is special danger in the Shiite doctrine held by many Iranians, including some of Iran’s national leaders: The return of the hidden Imam will bring the war that ends the world and creates heavenly bliss for believers. As America’s dean of Mideast studies, Bernard Lewis, puts it: During the Cold War, Mutual Assured Destruction was a deterrent; today it is an inducement.
Second, Iran works very closely with North Korea on its nuclear and missile programs. Consequently, it has the ballistic missile capacity to launch weapons of substantial size and intercontinental range against us, or to orbit satellites above us. So troubling is this capability — in the hands of either Iran or North Korea — that nine years ago, based on the ability of North Korea ’s Taepodong missile to carry a nuclear warhead to intercontinental range, the current secretary of defense, Ashton Carter, and a prominent former secretary, William Perry, urged in a 2006 oped a pre-emptive strike against the then-new North Korean long-range missiles on their launch pads. As the two secretaries put it then, “Intervening before mortal threats to U.S. security can develop is surely a prudent policy.” Their view was that our ballistic missile defense capabilities were unproven and should not be relied upon for such an important task. “Diplomacy has failed,” they said, “And we cannot sit by.”
Third, Iran now is either very close to being able to field a nuclear weapon or it should be regarded as already having that capability. As William Graham, who served as President Reagan’s science adviser, administrator of NASA and chairman of the Congressional EMP Commission, as well as many of his distinguished colleagues, such as Henry Cooper, who was director of the Strategic Defense Initiative, and Fritz Ermarth, former chairman of the National Intelligence Council, have put it: “Regardless of intelligence uncertainties and unknowns about Iran ’s nuclear weapons and missile programs, we know enough now to make a prudent judgment that Iran should be regarded by national security decision makers as a nuclear missile state capable of posing an existential threat to the United States and its allies.” Iran ’s progress toward having a nuclear weapon that can be orbited or delivered by a long-range missile will not be halted by the concession-rich compromises proposed by the administration’s arms control negotiators in Geneva. North Korea already has this capability. As it appears now, Iran will have it before long. What are the consequences for our vulnerability to these two rogue states?
The new factor that makes one or a few nuclear warhead-carrying missiles launched into orbit much more dangerous than during the Cold War is the possibility of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack against the critical infrastructures that are the foundation of modern societies, especially the national electric grid. Electronics are increasingly vulnerable to EMP — more than a million times more vulnerable (and, yes, also much more capable) than they were at the dawn of the age of modern electronics a half-century ago. Moore’s Law has not been kind to our electronic vulnerabilities.
Consequently, even one nuclear warhead detonated at orbital altitude over the United States would black out the national electric grid and other life-sustaining critical infrastructures for months or years by means of the electromagnetic pulse it would create. The Congressional EMP Commission assessed that a nationwide blackout lasting one year could kill nine of 10 Americans through starvation and societal collapse. Islamic State-like gangs would rule the streets. Just such a scenario is described in Iranian military documents.
Thus, once Iran has a nuclear weapon, even a primitive one, with a small number of long-range missiles it can use an EMP attack to threaten our survival as a nation and, indeed, the existence of modern society. If a nuclear Iran decided that we were, literally, (and not just as the target of a Persian religious expletive) “the Great Satan,” it might decide that we should meet Satan’s fate.
The advice given President George W. Bush by the two secretaries of defense nine years ago with respect to striking North Korea may turn out to be advice to which President Obama should give heed for one or both of these rogue states. But just on the chance that a pre-emptive attack on Iran ’s strategic capabilities has somehow not found its way onto the chart of options now being discussed these days in the Oval Office, at a minimum the United States needs to protect, now, its electric grid and other critical infrastructures from EMP by passing the Critical Infrastructure Protection Act and the Shield Act. These would at least let us begin to take some key and affordable steps toward hardening the electric grid.
These bills gathering dust in Congress for years without presidential support or interest, mark a new low in the failure of the White House and Congress to fulfill their security responsibilities to the nation. Their continued failure could be the most fateful government dereliction of duty in history.
R. James Woolsey is a former director of central intelligence and is chairman of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Peter Vincent Pry is executive director of the EMP Task Force, and served in the EMP Commission, the Strategic Posture Commission, the House Armed Services Committee and the CIA.