By Greg Thielmann
“The first concern, of course, is [the Iranians’] continuing development of intercontinental ballistic missiles.” –Rep. Lloyd “Ted” Poe (R-TX) 12/10/13
“Many of us believe that the policies of this administration are putting the American people at risk, our allies at risk…with the missile capability that Iran has…” –Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) 12/10/13
Given the gravity of scenarios involving Iranian nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), the American people must keep a watchful eye out for such a threat emerging. Public officials charged with providing warning and taking protective action have a responsibility to speak clearly and responsibly about what is happening in this regard.
What then do we know about Iran’s theater and intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities? So far, Iran has abstained from pursuing them – limiting its ballistic missile development efforts to short- and medium-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs/MRBMs), which can affect military operations in the Persian Gulf and extend Iran’s military reach to states in the region like Israel.
As the end of the year approaches, it is worth noting that there has not yet been a first flight test of an Iranian ICBM – or even of an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM). Moreover, a recent analysis by Michael Elleman of IISS observed that “neither the U.S. nor Israel cite evidence that Iran is actively developing or ‘building’ ICBMs.”
The absence of a flight test is significant, because unlike some other military systems better suited to clandestine development, ballistic missiles must be repeatedly and conspicuously flight-tested before they are ready to be serially produced and deployed. The flight tests of long-range ballistic missiles are tracked and analyzed by the United States, among others, providing long lead-time warning of critical program activity and progress.
An observer of this week’s congressional hearings on the interim Iran nuclear agreement would get an entirely different impression of Iran’s ballistic missile activities. Four members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee brought up Iran’s ballistic missile program at the committee’s December 10 hearing, not to wonder why there had been so little MRBM activity this year and why the emphasis seems to be on shorter-range rather than longer-range systems, but to imply just the opposite and to criticize the interim Iran nuclear agreement for not including specific limits on Iran’s missiles.
The tenor of the missile commentary in the committee followed the lines of earlier congressional expressions of concern. House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) and 18 fellow members warned Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in March 2013 that Iran could test an ICBM before the end of the year. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reinforced these concerns by asserting to an American interviewer in October 2013 that Iran “was developing ICBMs – not for us, but for you.”
Nuclear-armed ICBMs possessed by hostile countries obviously constitute threats of the first order. If the current government of Iran ever tested, built, and deployed such weapons, it would directly and seriously impact U.S. security.
Of more immediate concern to U.S. allies in the region is the potential use of Iran’s existing medium-range missiles to deliver nuclear warheads that Iran could develop in the future, should it decide to do so. The availability of Iran’s 20 percent enriched uranium stockpile to enrich further to weapons grade for arming those missiles is a far less hypothetical threat.
Iran is assessed to have deployed several dozen single stage, liquid fuel MRBMs, based on North Korea’s Nodong. The Iranian variants of this missile, Iran’s Shahab-3 and Ghadr-1, have improved on the original, but are still not accurate enough with their conventional warheads to destroy point targets. They could nonetheless be used as terror weapons against cities in the region.
By comparison, both Israel and Saudi Arabia have operational ballistic missiles with longer ranges; the Israelis are assumed to possess the only nuclear-armed missiles based in the Middle East.
The Iranian space program gives rise to concerns about utilizing space launch vehicle (SLV) technology for military purposes.
At the December 12 Senate Banking Committee hearing, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) saw fit to announce that “the Iranians are launching … a rocket next week,” commenting that “…though this was supposedly made as their space program, it’s well known that this is just a cover for military ballistic weapons program.”
Ever since the Iranians exhibited an SLV mockup in February 2010 that was larger than the Safir SLV used to launch its first satellite, those interpreting the space rockets as military systems in disguise have regarded the Simorgh SLV as a stand-in for a future Iranian ICBM. Yet experts like Elleman assess that even if the Simorgh were modified and converted into a military system, it would have a maximum range of 4,000-6,000 km, far less than required to reach the United States.
In any event, the Simorgh’s inaugural launch, originally scheduled for March 2011, is now scheduled for early next year. The possible December launch to which Sen. Menendez referred has been announced as a suborbital flight of the Kavoshgar 7 rocket “to carry a living creature” into space. (The passenger in the bio-capsule this time may again be a monkey, evolving from the previous successful launch of a mouse, two turtles and several worms in 2010.)
Kavoshgar 7 is a sounding rocket similar in size to variants used in previous flights (both successful and unsuccessful), but this time using liquid fuel. In terms of range/payload capabilities, it is expected to be similar to a Ghadr MRBM.
An objective look at Iran’s missile activities in 2013 contributes little to an evaluation of the November 24 interim nuclear agreement, one way or another. A more rational reaction to the absence of evident progress in Iran’s long-range ballistic missile program would be to raise budgetary and programmatic issues for U.S. missile defense expenditures: Can funds be saved by slowing the current Phase 3 schedule of the European Phased Adaptive Approach and should consideration of East Coast basing for strategic ballistic missile interceptors be postponed?
That such outcomes are unlikely suggests a continuing ideological approach to projecting Iran’s ICBM capabilities. This is a pity since crying “wolf” when there is no wolf diverts resources and attention from real threats and potentially foregoes opportunities to make diplomatic progress where it might otherwise be possible.