The problem is that there are hundreds of sources of highly radioactive materials. They are found in minute quantities in doctors' offices, mining operations, and smoke detectors. They have literally scores of civilian uses. Terrorists could steal the ounces of material required for a bomb from one of the manufactures of these civilian devices, or simply purchase it through a covert operation. The basic solution is to reduce the usage of radioactive material (most applications have non-radioactive alternatives) and better secure those supplies that remain.
This must be an international effort. The 53 nations that gathered at the second Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul this year took the first steps.* They recognized that "identifying nuclear smugglers, recovering nuclear and radiological material outside of regulatory control, and prosecuting those responsible are important and effective activities to help prevent terrorists from acquiring nuclear or other radioactive materials." The next summit in The Netherlands in 2014 will add control of radiological materials to the list of joint and national actions already under way to secure global stocks of fissile material. Dirty bombs will join their big brother in global control efforts.
So, for the sake of argument, let's say that Romney was just identifying yet another nuclear-related security threat facing the United States and confused "dirty bomb" with "crude nuclear device." That still leaves his larger point about Iran's leaders being "crazy people" -- which is equally problematic.
If you think Iran's mullahs are crazy, then there is nothing you can do to stop them from getting a nuclear weapon and using it to destroy Israel or an American city. Not military threats, not sanctions, certainly not negotiations. They are crazy; they don't respond to reason. Your only real option is to kill them. Charles Krauthammer recently wrote an entire column arguing just this point.
But it is important to note that this is not what America's military and intelligence leaders believe.
In February, Fareed Zakaria asked Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey, "When you observe Iranian behavior, does it strike you as highly irrational? Does it strike you as sort of unpredictable, or do they seem to follow their national interests in a fairly calculating way?" Dempsey replied: "I've been confronting that question since I commanded Central Command in 2008. And we are of the opinion that the Iranian regime is a rational actor. And it's for that reason, I think, that we think the current path we're on is the most prudent path at this point."
Some members of Congress did not like that answer. In a congressional hearing a few weeks later, Dempsey was pressed by Rep. Tom Price, who said he was "stunned" by Dempsey comment and wanted to know if he still stood by his statement. The general did not hesitate:
Yes, I stand by it because the alternative is almost unimaginable. The alternative is that we attribute to them that their actions are so irrational that they have no basis of planning.... Thucydides in the fifth century B.C. said that all strategy is some combination of reaction to fear, honor and interests. And I think all nations act in response to one of those three things, even Iran. 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.
Former Mossad chief, Meir Dagan, agrees: "The regime in Iran is a very rational regime," he told 60 Minutes in March. So does Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who told the Senate Intelligence Committee in January:
We continue to judge Iran's nuclear decision-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence Tehran. Iranian leaders undoubtedly consider Iran's security, prestige and influence, as well and international political and security environment, when making decision about its nuclear program.
If Governor Romney disagrees with these intelligence and military assessments, he should explain why, and what he would do differently. But first he needs to spend a bit more time on the basics of nuclear weaponry if he ever hopes to have his finger on the ultimate button.
* Correction: This sentence originally said 54 nations attended the Nuclear Security Summit.