As warnings of the Iranian ICBM threat continue to emanate from the halls of Congress and the sound bytes of strategic missile defense advocates, it is worth taking a moment to observe the yawning gap between the rhetoric and the evidence.
During an interview last Sunday on CBS's Face the Nation, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left no doubt that he wished to underscore the threat to the United States posed by Iranian intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs):
"[The Iranians are] building ICBMs to reach...the American mainland within a few years. They're pursuing an alternate route of plutonium, that is enriched uranium to build a nuclear bomb. One route, plutonium. Another route, ICBMs, intercontinental missiles to reach you. They don't need these missiles to reach us, they already have missiles that can reach us."
Uzi Rubin, former head of Israel's Missile Defense Organization, had a similar message for his Capitol Hill audience last Friday morning at a congressional breakfast seminar. Rubin contended that Iranian missile efforts had not slowed down, even though not much is being heard about them. Space launch activity had actually accelerated in 2012-13, he said, with two or perhaps three unpublicized (and unsuccessful) launch attempts using the two-stage Safir. He stressed that any space rocket launch attempts advanced military ballistic missile programs as well, because the technology base was the same.
In a phone interview with the Global Security Newswire the same week, former U.S. Missile Defense Agency chief Trey Obering called for accelerating work on a proposed East Coast missile interceptor site in light of the "advances" North Korea and Iran have made in recent years in their pursuit of long-range ballistic missiles.
These warnings echo those contained in a March 2013 letter to Defense Secretary Hagel from House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon and 18 fellow committee members. The Congressmen wrote that "It appears Iran could test an [ICBM] this year" and decried the "large gap in the missile defense of the U.S. against the Iranian threat."
In their apparent eagerness to dramatize the threat, the House members advanced by two years the Defense Intelligence Agency's previous warnings that a test could occur "as early as 2015." The latter date was most recently repeated in the National Air and Space Intelligence Center's July 2013 report: "Iran could develop and test an ICBM by 2015." NASIC unfortunately dumbed down the Pentagon's already worst-case formulation by reducing "may be technically capable of..." to "could." It also neglected to mention the important qualifier in the original formulation: "... with sufficient foreign assistance." Few non-specialists would notice that there is no probability assessment attached to this "could" formulation, suggesting that the intelligence community wants to cover itself in case such an unlikely event occurs, but it does not believe such a scenario is probable.
Although the 2015 date has certainly stuck as a feature of the political discourse on the need for strategic missile defense, the evidentiary basis for the assertion is rapidly disintegrating.
There is no indication from the periodic reports of the UN Panel of Experts on the Iran sanctions that "sufficient foreign assistance" is being rendered.
As far as we know, no ICBM missile bodies or launchers have been seen. Iran's largest space launch vehicle, the Simorgh, was displayed in the form of a mockup in February 2010 and was heralded in the United States as having technical characteristics comparable to an ICBM. But the Simorgh has never flown and has not yet even made an appearance as a full-up rocket.
A December 2012 Congressional Research Service report by Steven Hildreth judged it "increasingly uncertain whether Iran will be able to achieve an ICBM capability by 2015." Missile expert Michael Elleman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies has expressed doubts about whether an operational Iranian ICBM is even likely within the current decade.
It had been previously assumed that Iran would have deployed by now a solid-fuel medium-range ballistic missile, the Sejjil, to replace the more vulnerable and less capable Shahab-3 MRBM. But as Uzi Rubin acknowledged last week, that system appears to have encountered technical difficulties. Never field-deployed, it has not been flight-tested for more than two years.
Iran's nuclear and missile programs offer many legitimate grounds for concern and they are particularly threatening to many of Iran's neighbors in the region. But, although it is difficult to rule out ominous developments over the horizon, it is time for some more responsible and objective statements about present and imminent dangers to the U.S. mainland.
Unlike some other military systems well suited to clandestine development, ballistic missiles must be repeatedly flight-tested before they are ready to deploy. And the flight tests of long-range ballistic missiles are and will be tracked and analyzed by the United States.
So far, Iran has never flight-tested a long-range ballistic missile—neither a 5,500 km range ICBM nor a 3,000-5,500 km range intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM). Moreover, in striking contrast to its active pursuit of short- and medium-range missiles, Iran has never declared or demonstrated an interest in developing longer-range systems. It would be appropriate to at least bring these facts into the discussion of when (or if) an Iranian ICBM threat might eventually appear.