Experts Question Predictions on Iranian ICBM

Independent experts are skeptical of claims that Iran is moving rapidly to field an ICBM that could reach the East Coast of the United States, Wired magazine reported on Friday (see GSN, Feb. 22).

The latest warning came from Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, who this week said Tehran within two to three years could have an initial ICBM capability.

However, U.S. intelligence agencies are no longer offering such estimates.

“The bottom line,” according to former CIA Middle East specialist Paul Pillar, “is that the intelligence community does not believe (the Iranians) are anywhere close to having an ICBM.”

Concerns about Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities go hand in hand with concerns that it is pursuing a nuclear-weapon capability. The Middle Eastern state says its atomic activities have no military component (see related GSN story, today).

There is no question that Iran maintains a significant ballistic missile development and stockpiling effort, which includes the Shahab 3 and Sajjil systems. The nation has also proven capable of putting objects into orbit, a matter of concern as the technology needed to fire satellites also has long-range missile applications (see GSN, Oct. 4, 2011).

Challenges to production of an Iranian ICBM include the need for “clustering” of missile engines and ensuring that the systems work perfectly in tandem during flight. “That’s not an easy thing, to make sure they fire simultaneously and don’t shake themselves to death in process,” said former State Department missile specialist Greg Thielmann, now with the Arms Control Association.

Iran is also not yet known to have developed directional technology that could survive an ICBM’s return from space as it heads toward its target.

“Then the warhead itself has to function at such extreme physical conditions,” said Hans Kristensen, who heads the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. “There are several really complicated steps they have to go through to do this.”

Tehran might not possess the materials needed for producing ICBMs. The nation also conducts exacting trial efforts for its missiles, meaning signs of ICBM technology testing are not likely to go unnoticed.

“You’re gonna know whether this happens. You’re gonna see at least one flight test of this bigger stage,” said David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “We haven’t seen them develop reentry vehicles on something this long-range.”

Wright estimated Iran would need five to 10 years to develop an ICBM. Other issue specialists did not dispute that assessment while declining to offer their own, Wired reported.

Previous U.S. intelligence predictions on the issue have proven incorrect, including a 1995 National Intelligence Estimate that put the date for an Iranian ICBM at 2010. The two most recent U.S. national intelligence directors, though, have avoided such specific estimates.

“That’s probably a tacit acknowledgement that they really don’t have much to say,” Pillar said. “It’s far enough away to say ‘they’re so many years away,’ or you don’t say anything at all” (Spencer Ackerman, Wired, Feb. 24).