Mitt Romney's Iran Hallucinations

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Associated Press

"So we really don't have any option but to keep Iran from having a nuclear weapon," concludes one of the several priceless Mitt Romney foreign policy riffs that, thanks to Mother Jones, are now part of the world's cultural heritage.

I personally disagree with that conclusion (for reasons spelled out here), but I recognize that there are smart and thoughtful people who accept it, and there are serious arguments to be made on its behalf. However, the argument that Mitt Romney made on its behalf is comical--or as close to comical as something can be while underscoring the fact that your country may soon be led by a man totally unprepared for the job.

Here, as Romney explained it at the now-famous assemblage of donors in Boca Raton, is the reason we have to worry about a nuclear Iran:

If I were Iran, if I were Iran--a crazed fanatic, I'd say let's get a little fissile material to Hezbollah, have them carry it to Chicago or some other place, and then if anything goes wrong, or America starts acting up, we'll just say, "Guess what? Unless you stand down, why, we're going to let off a dirty bomb." I mean this is where we have--where America could be held up and blackmailed by Iran, by the mullahs, by crazy people. So we really don't have any option but to keep Iran from having a nuclear weapon.

As various people have noted, a "dirty bomb"--which works via contamination, not obliteration--isn't something you'd make with uranium, the nuclear material Iran possesses. Rather, you'd do something like blow up a truckload of radioactive medical waste--or, if you could somehow penetrate a factory that makes smoke detectors or certain exotic medicines, you'd take a less crude approach.

I mean, you could use uranium, but it would take a whole, whole lot. As Joseph Cirincione, President of the Ploughshares Fund, points out in Foreign Policy: If you wanted to contaminate most of Manhattan, you could use 1.4 ounces of cesium-137 (used to treat cancer)--or, alternatively, 1,460 tons of uranium. Cirincione writes, "getting 'a little fissile material to Hezbollah' would mean shipping them some 1,400 tons of uranium--when all Iran has now is 6 tons total."

Give Romney credit: He's mastered a key neocon trope. He remembers to call Iran's leaders "the mullahs"--and, just in case that by itself doesn't evoke images of wild-eyed, bearded fanatics, he adds that they're "crazy people" and throws in, for good measure, "crazed fanatic." But then, as so often happens, Mitt goes weirdly off-message; he starts talking about a dirty bomb in Chicago rather than a suicidal strike on Israel.

Iran also figures in Romney's explanation, to those same donors, of why a Palestinian state in the West Bank strikes him as a bad idea. The trouble is, he said, Iran would put missiles in the new Palestine.

Funny, I had assumed a Palestinian state would be run by Palestinians, not Iranians. It's of course true that there has been an alliance between Iran and Hamas. But (a) that's a periodically tense marriage of convenience between a Sunni movement and a Shiite state; (b) Hamas governs Gaza, not the West Bank; (c) if there were ever a two-state solution, you would obviously build in incentives, like conditional economic aid, to keep Palestine away from dubious allies; and (d) though Palestine would of course develop regional allies, nearby Sunni states, which are themselves suspicious of Iran, are much more natural candidates than Iran.

Dire two-state-solution scenarios are kind of like dire dirty-bomb scenarios: there are versions of them that are worth talking about, but those tend not to involve Iran--yet the versions Mitt Romney insists on talking about do involve Iran. And they're accordingly far-fetched. It's almost as if he took a powerful hallucinogenic drug at the very moment he was heading off on some kind of imagine-horrible-things-Iran-could-do jag.

I doubt that's what happened. Romney doesn't strike me as the acid-dropping type. But what did happen? Has Romney been spending too much time with his most Iranophobic advisers, or has he just decided that nothing revs up donors quite like thoughts of crazy Persian mullahs? Given that donors tend to remain on a president's mind during a first term in the White House, I'm not sure how much it matters.

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Robert Wright is the author of, most recently, the New York Times bestseller The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic. More

Wright is also a fellow at the New America Foundation and editor in chief of Bloggingheads.tv. His other books include Nonzero, which was named a New York Times Book Review Notable Book in 2000 and included on Fortune magazine's list of the top 75 business books of all-time. Wright's best-selling book The Moral Animal was selected as one of the ten best books of 1994 by The New York Times Book Review.Wright has contributed to The Atlantic for more than 20 years. He has also contributed to a number of the country's other leading magazines and newspapers, including: The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, Time, and Slate, and the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Financial Times. He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award for Essay and Criticism and his books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

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