By Greg Thielmann
Senator Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) has taken his tried and (un)true mantra about the Iranian ICBM threat on the road, according to recent reporting from his home state. In language nearly identical to his statement at a Senate hearing in Washington last year, Inhofe said: “We know – and it is not even classified for me to tell you today – that Iran will have the capability of delivering a weapon of mass destruction to western Europe and the eastern United States by 2015.”
As a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Inhofe should know better. According to the Congressionally-mandated assessment of Iran’s ballistic missile program, issued by the Pentagon in April 2010: “With sufficient foreign assistance , Iran could  probably  develop and test an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States by 2015.” This triple-hedged, worst-case conclusion is far from Sen. Inhofe’s unqualified assertion that Iran will have an operational ICBM (with a WMD warhead) by 2015.
Outside experts give us a clearer understanding of Iran’s probable long-range missile trajectory. An International Institute of Strategic Studies net assessment in May 2010 concluded that: “…a notional Iranian ICBM, based on No-dong and Scud technologies, is more than a decade away from development.”
From my perspective as a former member of the intelligence community, I have previously commented on how little value I believe policy-makers derive from heavily qualified assessments of what “could” happen, unaccompanied by estimates of what is “most likely” to happen. But the intelligence community’s failure to highlight the probable does not excuse Sen. Inhofe’s inaccurate and misleading statements. By abandoning the subjunctive case used by the U.S. intelligence analysts, Sen. Inhofe engages in the same type of malfeasance, which characterized the Bush Administration’s pre-war statements about Iraqi WMD.
Back in the real world, the Iranians continue to concentrate on the development and deployment of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, the most capable of which is the solid fuel Sejjil-2 MRBM, currently being flight-tested. By 2015, this missile is likely to be deployed, though not necessarily with nuclear warheads. Iran would then be able to threaten cities 2,200-2,400 km beyond Iran’s borders – including in Israel and in southeastern Europe. Although Iran’s progress with the Safir space-launch vehicle is relevant for alternative pursuit of longer-range ballistic missiles, the Safir itself would not be able to carry a large enough payload if Iran sought to adapt it as a weapon system.
Meanwhile, the “most-likely” timeline for emergence of an Iranian ICBM continues to slip. More than a year after Sen. Inhofe minted his mantra, Iran has never developed or flight-tested either an ICBM that could reach the United States or even an IRBM that could reach Western Europe. The “sufficient foreign assistance” Iran would need to acquire an ICBM by 2015 appears even more unlikely after the strengthened sanctions adopted by the UN Security Council in June 2010.
In the real world, the Obama Administration’s program for deploying European-based missile defenses to help cope with a potential Iranian ICBM threat by 2020 appears chronologically appropriate. Whether or not it is wise or necessary is another question.