Cliff May

If you don’t live in Washington, New York, or another big city, you may think: “Even if the terrorists do strike again on American soil, my hometown and my family probably aren’t in danger.” Think again.

In 2001 the U.S. government established a commission to “assess the threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) attack.” The commission recently reported to Congress that if a nuclear warhead were to be detonated at high altitude over the American mainland the blast would produce an EMP — a shockwave so powerful that it would “cripple military and civilian communications, power, transportation, water, food, and other infrastructure.”

Lights would go out. Telecommunications would fail. Computers would crash. Bank accounts would disappear. The stock market would cease operation. Refrigerated food warehouse would shut down. Sanitation and emergency services would be crippled.

Before long, millions of Americans would, as the Wall Street Journal flatly phrased it, “die of starvation or want of medical care.” It would require months or even years for America to climb out of the pre-industrial hole into which it had been flung.

Any number of terrorists groups would be proud to carry out such an attack. But, as the EMP commission also reported, only Iran (1) is attempting to develop nuclear weapons; (2) has recently conducted multiple missile tests of its nuclear-capable Shahab-3 missiles; (3) has done so from cargo ships in the Caspian Sea; and (4) also has detonated those missiles at high altitude. What’s more, the CIA has translated Iranian military journals in which EMP attacks against the U.S. are explicitly discussed.

Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council and a member of the Committee on the Present Danger, comments: “Iran's interest in developing EMP capabilities suggests that in the near future, Iran could be able to carry out an asymmetric attack involving a mid-air nuclear detonation.”

Capability is one thing. Intention is another. Or is it? Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said: “The time for the fall of the satanic power of the United States has come and the countdown to the annihilation of the emperor of power and wealth has started.” He has added: “A world without the United States . . . can be achieved.”

An EMP attack would achieve that goal most rapidly because it would require only one nuclear weapon, and by using a ship as the launch pad, it would obviate the need for very long-range missiles (which Iran has not yet acquired).

Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.