Last night, Mother Jones magazine posted a series of videos of Mitt Romney speaking candidly to wealthy donors at a private fundraiser in May. In the videos, Romney weighed in on a number of topics, including Iran. In just over 30 seconds, Romney revealed not only a fundamental misunderstanding of dirty bombs, but also a disturbingly simplistic perspective on America’s challenges in the Middle East.
Here’s an excerpt of what Romney had to say on 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.”
Romney appears to believe that a dirty bomb is a nuclear weapon. It isn’t.
Crucially, a dirty bomb does not require fissile material (enriched uranium or plutonium whose atoms are split to produce a high-energy nuclear explosion). In fact, the uranium that Iran is enriching doesn’t work particularly well in dirty bombs. Rather, dirty bombs use radioactive waste. There’s virtually no connection between Iran acquiring nuclear weapons and the blackmail scenario that Romney outlines in the video.
In reality, the best way to reduce the threat posed by dirty bombs is to secure and eliminate excess stocks of this material, especially at medical facilities. If Romney is concerned about this threat, he should have a chat with his running mate. In 2011, Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan proposed to slash $647.5 million from the Department of Energy account that includes vital programs tasked with securing radioactive materials stored and in use in the United States and abroad.
(The Obama administration hasn’t been exactly stellar on this front either. Earlier this year the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee expressed concern about the Department of Energy’s FY 2013 budget request for radiological security programs, which included a proposed 60% reduction in activities to remove and dispose of excess or abandoned radiological materials in other countries.)
But the video illustrates a problem much bigger than dirty bombs: Romney is peddling a distorted view of the threat posed by Iran. The threat from Iran has little to do with dirty bombs and much more to do with how Iran’s potential acquisition of nuclear weapons (an outcome which is neither imminent nor inevitable) could affect regional stability and security in the Middle East. Romney lumps all of these issues together by outlining a highly dubious link between a nuclear Iran and a Hezbollah dirty bomb attack on American soil, suggesting that he understands little about the complex situation in the Middle East that would be his responsibility come January if he is elected.
And Romney’s language matters here as well. Describing Iran’s leaders as “crazed fanatic[s]” might make the base feel good, but it tells us nothing about Iran’s motivations. As the National Security Network reminds us, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Dempsey has stated: “We are of the opinion that Iran is a rational actor.” He later added: “The key is to understand how they act, and not trivialize their actions by attributing to them some irrationality… I think that’s a very dangerous thing for us to do.”
This video is just one more indication that a Romney White House would conduct a “mad-libs foreign policy” driven not by facts, but by fear.