National Security & Defense

An Iran Deal Distraction

(Vahid Reza Alaei/AFP/Getty)

There are many things wrong with the deal with Iran that, at a minimum, paves the road for Iran to get nuclear weapons and deliver them to attack Israel and the United States. This remains the explicit goal of the Iranian mullahs and their followers, who greeted the deal with chants of “Death to Israel” and “Death to America.”

I could join the chorus recounting those many faults. But I prefer to emphasize something that is missing entirely from the debate: The mullahs and their followers may be able to achieve their goal with a capability they already have.

Iran launched a monkey into space on January 28, 2013 — almost 30 months ago. As then reported by Yeganeh Torbati in a Reuters article, this feat entailed launching a satellite weighting 4,400 pounds — much, much more than enough to carry a nuclear weapon. 

The month before this monkey business, the Congressional Research Service published a report — Iran’s Ballistic Missile and Space Launch Programs — that, among other things, described a new Iranian satellite launch site at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. The site had been reported to be 80 percent complete in June 2012. Presumably, it can launch satellites southward over a wide swath of directions. Such a satellite could pass over the United States in its first orbit.

A launch over the South Polar regions would approach the United States from a direction that avoids our current ballistic-missile defense (BMD) systems, which are focused on defending against intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that approach the United from the north. In effect, we have left our back door open while working to lock the front door.

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This past February, Iran conducted its fourth satellite launch to the south, during national ceremonies marking the 36th anniversary of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. This satellite was reported to weigh only 110 pounds and is in orbit at an altitude varying between 139 and 285 miles. 

This range of altitudes fits for Iran to detonate a nuclear weapon over the United States and produce an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that would shut down the electric-power grid of the continental United States for an indefinite period. Within a year, 200 million Americans could perish from starvation, disease, and societal collapse, according to estimates of members of the Congressional EMP Commission.

Executing this existential threat is much simpler than delivering a nuclear weapon by an ICBM, because the nuclear weapon would be detonated above the atmosphere — no proven ability to reenter the atmosphere is needed.

This range of altitudes fits for Iran to detonate a nuclear weapon over the United States.

Two points deserve emphasis. First, Iran already may have access to nuclear weapons, either in its own right or through cooperation with its ally, nuclear-capable North Korea — which also launches its satellites over the South Polar regions and can exploit the same U.S. vulnerabilities. And second, we should not permit this vulnerability to persist while being distracted by a debate about potential future Iranian capabilities.

In turn, two straightforward action items seem obvious.

First, we must deal with the EMP threat. The Department of Defense knows how; it has been protecting its key military systems against EMP effects for a half century — but it has not similarly been protecting the infrastructure upon which the survival of the American people depends. President Obama should knock heads until his lieutenants get their act together and address this deficiency.

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And second, we must defend against the threat from the south. We currently have no defense against the aforementioned satellites that approach us from over the South Polar regions, or against ballistic missiles launched from vessels in the Gulf of Mexico. The first might be addressed by empowering our missile-defense site at Vandenberg Air Force Base with sensors that track the threatening satellite. The second could be addressed by deploying on military bases around the Gulf the same Aegis Ashore BMD systems that we are building in Romania and Poland to protect Europe against Iranian ballistic missiles.

#related#While the EMP threat can be handled entirely by unilateral U.S. actions, diplomacy can play a role in countering the satellite threat. There are legitimate, non-threatening reasons for Iran (or North Korea) to launch satellites. But they should assure us that such launches do not carry nuclear weapons. And these assurances must be verified with high confidence.

I recommend that the president make a unilateral declaration that the United States will shoot down any Iranian (or North Korean) satellite unless an inspection demonstrates that no nuclear payload is involved. His negotiators could work out acceptable details that would be consistent with those negotiated with the Soviet Union over 25 years ago.

Now that would be a treaty worth having.

— Ambassador Henry F. Cooper was the director of the Strategic Defense Initiative, the acquisition executive of U.S. ballistic-missile defense systems, and chief negotiator at the Defense and Space Talks with the former Soviet Union.

Ambassador Henry F. Cooper was director of the Strategic Defense Initiative and chief negotiator at the Defense and Space Talks with the U.S.S.R.


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