Wild-eyed alarmism makes Iranian leaders and U.S. voters more likely to make bad choices.
There are a number of very good reasons that the U.S. should want to keep Iran from getting a nuclear bomb: it would destabilize the already unstable Middle East, give Iran greater cover for adventurism abroad, provoke Israel and possibly Saudi Arabia, and increase the possibility of nuclear war. But one of those reasons is not, as Newt Gingrich put it at a recent event in central Florida, "If Iranians get nuclear weapons, they don't have to fire a missile. They can just drive a boat into Jacksonville. Drive a boat into New York harbor."
Iran is not going to park a nuclear-armed boat at the ports of Jacksonville, New York, or any other American city. There are a number of reasons why -- I explain a few of them below -- but what's more important than the wrongness of Gingrich's comment is the dangerous trend it represents.
Republican presidential candidates have been fighting to outdo one another on who can build Iran up as the scariest and most immediate threat. Mitt Romney named it the greatest threat since the Soviet Union, Herman Cain called for outright regime change, Michele Bachmann suggested they were dead set on sparking "worldwife nuclear war." The politics of this are obvious and easy; the scarier you make Iran, the more likely voters are to prefer your confrontational rhetoric. People respond to fear, and it's easier to understand "Iran is evil" than the complexities of why an isolated Iranian regime might seek nuclear capability and how they would use it. But this increasingly outlandish fear-mongering is dangerous in itself.
Imagine you're a high-level Iranian official. All your adult life the only system you've known is Iran's, which is nominally quasi-democratic but strictly authoritarian, a system where everybody gets in line behind the Supreme Leader, whose bidding is law. You hear reports that a prominent American official named Newt Gingrich, whom your advisers tell you could become the next American president, is playing up the threat you pose to the U.S. and openly contemplating a preemptive war against you. Do you respond by shrugging off his comments as meaningless campaign rhetoric that would probably not translate into policy, or do you start thinking about how to defend your country from this apparently erratic threat?
The Republican primary field's exaggeration of the Iranian threat might make for good politics, but it misleads both Iranian leaders as well as U.S. voters, making both of them more likely to make bad choices. The U.S.-Iran relationship is complicated and dangerous enough without Gingrich or others disseminating bad information. People tend to behave irrationally and aggressively when they believe they are cornered. This is the situation that some Republicans are trying to portray, with violence as our only option. Iranian leaders may be increasingly perceiving that they are cornered as well (with plenty of help from whomever is killing those Iranian scientists), and according to a U.S. intelligence report, may see attacking the U.S. directly as an increasingly attractive defensive option. There's a lot more than just campaign trail alarmism at play here, but with Gingrich and Romney doing seemingly whatever they can to hype the danger and terrify people, it certainly isn't helping.
Now, here are four of the many reasons that Gingrich is wrong about Iran putting a nuclear weapon on a boat to attack Jacksonville, Florida:
(1) It wouldn't serve Iranian interests in any way. Iran hawks sometimes like to portray the country as irrational and suicidal, but the country's leadership has so far demonstrated a shrewd and skillful knack for self-preservation. Maintaining rule over a large and diverse country like Iran is a very hard thing to do, and since the regime has persisted for over three decades despite internal strife and external pressure, it's probably safe to assume that they're not idiots or wackos. But nuking an American city would be both dumb and irrational, as it would do nothing to promote Iranian interests. Though the leadership could believe that small-scale attacks or subterfuge might deter the U.S., it has every reason to believe that a nuclear attack would provoke a devastating response from the U.S. and the world.
(2) The U.S. would probably retaliate with a nuclear bomb. When Obama clarified his nuclear policy in 2010, he laid out exactly when he would and would not consider nuclear force. The nuclear posture review, as it was called, emphasized that the U.S. would feel free to use nuclear weapons against a country that deployed an illegal nuclear weapons program: namely, Iran. He also announced that the U.S. still have several thousand nuclear warheads. Even if Iran destroyed an American city, it understands that the response could very well be the total nuclear annihilation of Iran. It's impossible to know for sure if Obama would go through with this, but even if he doesn't, surely he would invade instead.
(3) Iran wants nukes for deterrence, so it would never use them preemptively. The Iranian leadership understands that it is isolated and besieged. That's exactly why it would want a nuclear bomb: to deter the U.S., Israel, Saudi Arabia, or others from attacking. To put their (possibly sole) warhead on a boat and send it far away would make it useless as a defensive weapon. Using that warhead would also guarantee a U.S. attack, which would also defeat the entire purpose of having a deterrent.
(4) Bush already thought of this. The George W. Bush administration started worrying about a ship-borne nuclear bomb immediately after September 11, 2001, and by that November has passed legislation to start screening cargo for nuclear materials or other hazards. The smartest part of the Customs Trade Partnership against Terrorism, as the law is called, is that much of the screening takes place in far-away ports, before the ships ever arrive at American shores. Risk factors -- say, if a ship took cargo in Iran -- automatically trigger additional screening. Though the idea was to protect against non-state terrorism, the now expansive program would screen against an Iranian bomb as well.