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Iran at our Doorstep - Part II, The EMP Threat

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

In Part I of this series, "Iran at our Doorstep," published in the August issue of A Line of Sight, I documented Iran's continued quest to develop a nuclear weapon. Additionally, I explained the Iran-Venezuela-Russia alliance currently constructing a military missile base on the extreme northern coast of Venezuela well within reach of many heavily populated U.S. cities. The publicly stated purpose of building the base is to provide the capability for Venezuela to launch missiles at "Iran's enemies."


Subsequently on September 4 we published contributing editor Major General Paul Vallely's article summarizing the release by the United Nation's IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) of a "restricted report" regarding Iran's continued nuclear activity. Consistent with the documentation shared on these pages last month, the U.N. nuclear agency said it is "increasingly concerned" by a stream of "extensive and comprehensive" intelligence coming from "many member states" suggesting that Iran continues to work secretly on developing a nuclear payload for a missile and other components of a nuclear weapons program.

General Vallely now serves as Chairman of Stand Up America, a private organization that includes numerous former military and intelligence community experts and analysts. In his September 4 article, Vallely wrote, "SUA believes strongly that Iran now possesses low yield nuclear war heads that can be mounted on the Shehab missile and deployed on the oceans in container ships with the Russian provided Club K missile launch system." The General went on to explain that Iran's objective is to "launch EMP (electro-magnetic pulse) weapons on U.S. Coastal cities and freeze our national grid systems."

A June, 2011 RAND report agreed with Vallely's analysis. According to RAND senior defense policy analyst Gregory S. Jones, Tehran's nuclear program has progressed to the point that "it will take around two months for the Iranian regime to produce the 20kg of uranium enriched to 90 percent required for the production of a nuclear warhead."


The window may have slammed shut on the opportunity to prevent Iran from going nuclear.

Americans are increasingly concerned about the vulnerability to a cyber-attack. On a personal level, that could involve the hacking into one's personal financial or other identity information. A cyber-attack could also escalate to a much larger scale of a corporate or large network cyber-theft, and certainly a cyber-attack that penetrated our various government, military or national security agencies could be catastrophic.

But, an EMP attack would be even far more destructive and life threatening. For those unfamiliar, one of America's most experience terrorism experts, RP Eddy, offers this layman's definition: "An EMP is a result of a nuclear explosion, or of another weapon, that releases a wave of electrons that will fry every electronic gizmo or tool that civilization needs to survive." Among his lengthy and distinguished credentials, Eddy served the Clinton Administration on the National Security Council as the Director of Counterterroism, and following the 9/11 attacks founded the Center of Tactical Counterterrorism in New York.

This isn't just theoretical or "Hollywood" fantasy. A quick search will yield a large library full of information and warnings about EMPs dating back over many decades. The U.S. found out about EMPs somewhat by accident during the World War II era when some of our own planes were affected by our own nuclear weapons tests. Although no nation has deployed an EMP, it is commonly accepted that many developed nations have such weapons. Since the technology required is considerably less sophisticated than advanced nuclear weaponry, experts believe that nations with developing nuclear capabilities and terrorist organizations may find EMPs far too appealing.


In a 2009 interview with Fox News, Eddy explained that part of the appeal to perceived lesser powers is that an EMP is far easier to build than a traditional nuclear weapon in part because it doesn't have to be as accurate nor as long range. And there are far too many bargain priced aged missiles lying around that can be picked on the cheap and nukes galore, too. Most estimates put the Russian stockpile alone of old and new nukes at more than 10,000. Eddy also referenced the ability to launch an EMP from a "floating barge" – the same Club K Russian weapons technology that looks like a common semi-truck trailer highlighted by Vallely in his September 4 article, and now being marketed to the world.

The above graphic is from 1997 congressional testimony, and it has been repeatedly referenced since that time to demonstrate that a single explosion sufficiently high in the atmosphere could paralyze the entire North American continent. As Eddy explains, an EMP attack would "fry" everything electric, and the "power grid would be out for months." Not only would our cell phones and computers not work, neither would hospital systems, air traffic control, food production and refrigeration, manufacturing, distribution of goods and services, financial transactions and records….you get the picture.

Frank Gaffney is a former Assistant Secretary of Defense and was in charge of Nuclear Forces and Arms Control Policy at the Pentagon under President Reagan. Currently, Gaffney is President of the Center for Security Policy. His warning of the potential devastation from an EMP attack is terrifying. "Within a year of that attack, nine out of 10 Americans would be dead, because we can't support a population of the present size in urban centers and the like without electricity," he says. "And that is exactly what I believe the Iranians are working towards."


Senator Jon Kyl, previously the Chairman and now Ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary's Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security, is deeply concerned about the vulnerability to an EMP attack. He says that it "is one of only a few ways that the United States could be defeated by its enemies – terrorist or otherwise. And it is probably the easiest."

"A terrorist organization might have trouble putting a nuclear warhead on target with a Scud, but it would be much easier to simply launch and detonate in the atmosphere," Kyl wrote in the Washington Post. "No need for risk and difficulty of trying to smuggle a nuclear weapon over the border or hit a particular city. Just launch a cheap missile from a freighter in international waters – al Qaida is believed to own about 80 such vessels – and make sure to get it a few miles in the air."

In addition to the 9/11 Commission charged with review and making recommendations following the 9/11 attacks, the government established The Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack. The Commission released their first report in 2004, about the same time as the 9/11 Commission, and a subsequent report in 2008. Unfortunately, only a few politicians like Sen. Kyl even paid attention. In fact, there have been at least six national commissions as well as the government commissions to issue reports on the threat of EMP. But, virtually all of the warnings and recommendations of the experts have been ignored. "Congress has merely deliberated it, but has not taken substantive action," according to the Heritage Foundation. "The Administration and federal agencies remain mostly ambivalent."


One of the most damning indictments of the 9/11 Commission's findings was a "failure of imagination." America couldn't imagine that we were vulnerable to a terrorist attack inside our border on the scale of 9/11. Have we allowed our imaginations to fall asleep again?

As threatening as an EMP attack is, there is also a great deal that can be done. The EMP Commission says the "appropriate national-level approach should balance prevention, protection, and recovery." Both comprehensive reports by the Commission contain specific recommendations to accomplish that balanced strategic approach. Unfortunately, we have done virtually nothing while the capabilities of our adversaries continue to advance.

James Carafano, the National Defense and Homeland Security expert at the Heritage Foundation offers this straightforward agenda:

1. Fund comprehensive missile defense

2. Develop a National Recovery Plan and a plan to respond to severe space emergencies.

3. Require more research on the EMP Threat.

Carafano also voices a frustration that echoes across the pages of the EMP Commission's 2008 report. "Simply recognizing the EMP threat would go a long way toward better preparing America for the unthinkable."

It has been ten years since the 9/11 attacks, and America has not suffered another significant attack on the homeland during the decade. Our national bravado and the passage of time cause us to not dwell on the unknown nor take seriously "death to America" pledges by tyrants like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. If as the experts warn, a single EMP attack could put America "back to the 19th century," do we not need to be vigilant?


In addition to a complacency developed from extended relative peace, by ignoring our increasing national security vulnerabilities and the capabilities of our enemies, America presented a target that was exploited by our enemies on 9/11. We have done much in the last ten years to prevent terrorists from flying planes into buildings, again, but are we ignoring an even bigger threat?

Iran either already has or is rapidly developing weapons technologies capable of great damage to America and our allies. In addition, the regime is expanding influence globally, particularly in South and Central America that further threatens our national security and global balance of power. In the coming weeks, we will expose more of the extended threatening web that the Iranians are weaving, and why it can neither be ignored nor tolerated.

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