Why Rep. Hunter Is Very Wrong About Nuking Iran

Irresponsible and extreme rhetoric could undermine the peace process.

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Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill, Thursday, April 7, 2011, in Washington. Standing behind him are Rep. Michael Grimm, R-N.Y., left, and right is House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of Calif.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill, Thursday, April 7, 2011, in Washington. Standing behind him are Rep. Michael Grimm, R-N.Y., left, and right is House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of Calif.

With the United States and Iran finally on a path toward resolving the dispute over Iran's nuclear program, a member of Congress on the House Armed Services Committee is playing the spoiler, urging the United States to prepare to launch a nuclear weapon against Iran.

Rep. Duncan Hunter Jr., R-Calif., appearing on C-SPAN, encouraged Washington to get ready for war, arguing that "if you have to hit Iran … you do it with tactical nuclear devices and you set them back a decade or two or three. I think that's the way to do it, with a massive aerial bombardment campaign."

This war-mongering is not new for Hunter. Using nukes is merely the latest in his saber-rattling. When Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey and Secretary of State John Kerry asked Congress for an authorization for the use of military force to bomb Syria earlier this year, Rep. Hunter pressed the administration officials to, instead, support "a resolution of force to bomb the hell out of Iran."  

These are not the words of an American statesman, nor should it be acceptable language for a member of Congress to suggest that a preventive, first-strike attack against Iran would be an appropriate policy.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Hunter would be wise to heed cooler heads that prevail among U.S. and Israeli military and intelligence officials who have staunchly opposed such an attack and have warned that "attacking Iran will encourage them to develop a bomb," to quote former chief of the Israeli Shin Bet Yuval Diskin.

There is no question that aerial bombardment of Iran with conventional weapons would be catastrophic. It would inflame already explosive tensions in the Middle East and a spark a regional war that could easily rage for decades. To drop nuclear bombs as part of a "massive aerial bombardment campaign," furthermore, could risk the scale of death and destruction seen in U.S. nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Play out Hunter's proposal and one quickly sees how devastating it would be. While Hunter doesn't specify what type of "tactical nuclear device" he would propose for such an attack, the Federation of American Scientists notes that launching the least powerful of such weapons would cause nuclear blasts that would "blow out a huge crater of radioactive material, creating a lethal gamma-radiation field over a large area."

Suppose Hunter would opt for something more lethal. If the United States were to use a more powerful tactical nuclear weapon, like the B-61, it could unleash an explosion many times more powerful than Little Boy, the atomic weapon the United States dropped on Hiroshima. Any such nuclear attack would incinerate untold numbers of Iranian civilians, including those working in Iran's nuclear power facilities, and those in nearby urban centers.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Iran.]

This is hardly the foreign policy legacy that America wants to leave behind.

What's most disconcerting here, however, is that Hunter is not alone in raising the specter of nuclear war against Iran. In a Republican primary debate in 2007, the representative's father, former Rep. Duncan Hunter, pledged that he would "authorize the use of tactical nuclear weapons if there was no other way to preempt those particular centrifuges" in a preventive, first-strike against Iran's nuclear facilities.

In fact, all of the senior Hunter's primary rivals, including former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore agreed that the United States should be willing to use tactical nuclear weapons against Iran. Sheldon Adelson, a  top political donor to Republican candidates, also called for President Obama to nuke Iran without delay.

This is shocking. Imagine the uproar such dangerous comments would rightly provoke if the tables were turned. Imagine that a member of Iran's parliament, the Majlis, threatened to develop nuclear weapons and proposed using them against Israel or the United States. Such a provocation would radically undermine ongoing negotiating efforts to diplomatically prevent war and a nuclear-armed Iran.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

This is exactly what is happening with these nuclear war threats from Hunter and Adelson. They are undermining calls in Iran for a more accommodating relationship with the West, emboldening Iranian hardliners.

Reckless statements impact the Iranian political discourse. The Diplomat reported that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei used Adelson's threat in a recent speech to make the case that the United States cannot be fully trusted. Words matter, especially in a relationship that until recently has been defined by decades of vicious confrontation. Needless to say, words have particular influence when they come from the mouths of members of the U.S. Congress.

Thankfully, not all in Washington are war-mongering. In stark contrast to this irresponsible drumbeat for war by a vocal minority in Congress, a bipartisan group of top national security officials have come out in support of the recent nuclear deal and ongoing negotiations, including former national security advisors Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft.

Rep. Hunter should follow their lead and join this bipartisan groundswell of support for a negotiated settlement over Iran's nuclear program and take nuclear war off the table. That's what a statesman would do. Let's see if the Congressman is up for the challenge.

Michael Shank, Ph.D., is the director of foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation and adjunct faculty at George Mason University's School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. Kate Gould is the legislative associate for Middle East policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.

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