Secretary of State John Kerry and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz sat down with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday to answer some questions about the six-party nuclear agreement with Iran and endure some grandstanding from Republican critics of the deal. Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the committee chair, kicked things off by telling Kerry, the lead negotiator for the U.S., that he had been “fleeced.” Jim Risch of Idaho expanded on Corker’s assessment, arguing that Kerry and his team had been “bamboozled.” The hearing was the first opportunity for congressional Republicans to directly and publicly confront the Obama administration over the Iran deal, and they took full advantage.
Amid all the sputtering outrage and high-dudgeon fulminating, one Republican managed to rise above the rest with a potent mix of pedantry and fearmongering: Sen. Ron Johnson. The Wisconsin Republican, who is up for reelection in one of this cycle's most fiercely contested races, devoted several minutes to interrogating Ernest Moniz about the threat posed by an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack on the United States by a nuclear-armed Iran.
If you’re at all familiar with the grubbier corners of the conservative media, you’ve likely heard something about electromagnetic pulse attacks before. The scenario goes like this: One of our geopolitical adversaries – like Iran or al-Qaida or whatever – fires a missile with a nuclear warhead high into the atmosphere over the United States where it detonates and sends out a pulse of highly charged particles that fry the hell out of any electrical system in their path. In the resulting blackout, the country descends into a dystopian hellscape rife with theft, murder and cannibalism. All communications equipment will be shot. Social order will break down. Chaos will reign.
It’s a terrifying scenario. But it’s also absurdly unlikely to occur. Consider everything that would have to happen for the Iranians to successfully explode a nuclear weapon in the atmosphere above the U.S. They would have to: develop nuclear weapons; develop missile technology that would allow for delivery of one of those weapons; come to the conclusion that a nuclear strike on the planet’s foremost nuclear power is a worthwhile pursuit; slip that weapon past all the United States’ missile defense systems; and then trust that the U.S. will not turn Iran into a lifeless radioactive wasteland in response.
And there’s no guarantee that an EMP attack would even work. As the Atlantic noted a few years back, “according to one commissioned study, a best-case scenario would impact 70 percent of electronics, while a worst-case estimate could be as low as 5 percent.” So the threat depends entirely on Iran going to the trouble of developing highly sophisticated weapons technology, and then using it in a fashion that defies its intended purpose and comes with a high likelihood of failure and a 100 percent likelihood of devastating retaliation.
But the EMP threat is of concern to Ron Johnson, and he clearly takes it very, very seriously. So seriously that he feels the need to talk down to Dr. Ernest Moniz, Ph.D. (theoretical physics), about what an electromagnetic pulse is. And, as it turns out, Moniz and the Energy Department are very much aware of the dangers posed by an electromagnetic pulse (natural or man-made), but they also recognize that the danger is remote. Moniz was actually asked about the possibility of an electromagnetic pulse affecting the electrical grid just last month, at a hearing of House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and he gave the answer that you’d expect:
REP. BOB LATTA (R-OH): Let me ask this. How concerned are you about electromagnetic pulse against the grid system?
MONIZ: Well, that's another risk that we identified. There are studies on that. The National Academy has studied that. I would say it's, once again, an example of probably low probability, but significant consequence possibility.
LATTA: And when you say low probability, what percent probability would you put that?
MONIZ: I'm not going to give a number, but it's low.
The real purpose in Johnson bringing up the Iranian EMP threat is to get people terrified about the nuclear deal with Iran. And he is by no means alone in doing this. EMP-mania has reached the highest levels of Republican politics, and apocalyptic fantasizing over EMP attacks has been a recurring feature of the 2016 presidential race. Mike Huckabee brought up EMPs in his speech announcing his candidacy. “An electromagnetic pulse, a bomb of sufficient size, over Iowa would knock out the power grids across the United States of America,” Rick Santorum said in April.
Just this week, Ted Cruz jumped on board the EMP scare campaign. “If Iran acquires a nuclear weapon, one of the most dangerous things it could do with it is load that weapon onto a ship anywhere in the Atlantic, fire the warhead straight into the air, into the atmosphere,” Cruz said. “If you get high enough and detonate that warhead, it would set off an electromagnetic pulse.” As Cruz put it, “one nuclear warhead in the atmosphere over the Eastern seaboard could result in tens of millions of Americans dying.”
The chances of that actually happening are vanishingly small, but that’s no reason not to cower in fear of the electromagnetic Iranian menace.