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Update On Iranian Missile Intelligence

3:00 PM, Sep 19, 2009 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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Earlier, I wondered what intelligence the Obama administration was relying upon to justify its decision to cancel the deployment of land-based missile defense systems in Eastern Europe. The press has sniffed out a partial answer. The Obama administration is relying upon a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) drafted in May of this year that differed from a previous intelligence assessment, which was current less than two years ago.

According to Reuters:

Behind the change, officials said on condition of anonymity, was a May 2009 National Intelligence Estimate which deemed Iran unlikely to have intercontinental missiles capable of striking the United States and all of Europe until 2015 to 2020.

A previous intelligence estimate, which former President George W. Bush cited publicly in October 2007, concluded that Iran could develop that long-range capability by 2015.

Three quick observations:

First, note that the Obama administration, in its fact sheet on missile defense, does not currently intend to deploy a missile defense system capable of intercepting Iran's long-range missiles until 2020. Phase Four of Obama's plan, which is "in the 2020 timeframe," reads (emphasis added): "After development and testing are complete, deploy the SM-3 Block IIB to help better cope with medium- and intermediate-range missiles and the potential future ICBM threat to the United States." All three of the previous phases deal with short to intermediate-range interceptors.

That is, Obama's plan does not envision the deployment of a missile defense capable of countering Iran's long-range missiles until the tail end of the current estimate of when the mullahs will have that capability. The current estimate is that Iran will have an ICBM capability between 2015 and 2020. Obama is therefore assuming the best-case scenario (for us) with respect to long-range missiles within that range. So, the current plan does not envision deploying long-range interceptors in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, or 2019, which are all possibilities in the current estimate. The Obama plan says things may change, of course, but for now they've assumed the best-case scenario from the West's perspective.

Second, as I discussed earlier, it is still very likely that the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) does not really have a firm grasp on when Iran will deploy ICBM's. Just as with the 2007 NIE on Iran's nuclear program, the IC has once again modified its views within a relatively short period of time. The previous estimate said that the mullahs "could" have a long-range missile capability by 2015. This estimate was cited as recently as President Obama's inauguration day, January 20 of this year. 2015 is still apparently a possibility, but the IC has now pushed back the tail-end of its range of possibilities. This means that it could be in 2015, or in 2020, some time in between, or whenever.

Of course, Iran continues apace with its satellite program (e.g. Iran launched its first satellite into space in February 2009), which can be used to push along its development of ICBM's. So, it is not clear why the IC now thinks, on average, it will take longer than previously anticipated for Iran to develop a long-range missile capability.

Third, the timing of the news of this revised NIE is certainly inauspicious. An IAEA document reportedly showing that Iran has the capability to make a nuclear bomb and is developing a missile system capable of carrying it has been leaked to the Associated Press. The IAEA responded by issuing a statement saying it "has no concrete proof that there is or has been a nuclear weapon program in Iran." This is transparently false as the AP's account makes it clear that the IAEA's document says Iran has mostly likely worked on both the ability to detonate a nuclear weapon as well as the capability to deliver it.