To be sure, Iran’s program is a concern for Western governments. But Inhofe, speaking to constituents in Oklahoma City takes his bona fides as a member of the Armed Services Committee and gives a misleading account of current U.S. estimates about Iran’s potential capabilities. 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. I see that as the most imminent threat to this country right now. So that is a problem we are going to have deal with.
This represents neither the official declassified opinion of the U.S. government nor that of a non-proliferation expert contacted by ThinkProgress.
Contrary to Inhofe’s statement, Michael Elleman, a missile defense expert at the Institute for Strategic and International Studies (ISIS), explained the U.S. Defense Department’s position in a blog post earlier this year:
The April 2010 Department of Defense report to Congress said, “With sufficient foreign assistance, Iran could probably develop and test an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching the United States by 2015.” The key words are “develop and test.” The report does not say Iran will have an operational ICBM by 2015. Iran could conduct a preliminary, proof-of-concept test of a missile capable of reaching the United States in 2015.
At the time of the report, Jeffery Lewis at the Arms Control Wonk blog also took note of the specific language — omitted by Inhofe — that “sufficient foreign assistance” would be needed for Iran to make anything near these moves by 2015.
Indeed, Iran isn’t even working yet on such a weapon: “There is no evidence to suggest that Iran is actively developing an ocean-spanning, intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching America’s east coast,” wrote ISIS’s Elleman. Even if they did, “Iran is unlikely to field an operational ICBM before 2020.”
This assessment was corroborated by Greg Thielmann, a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association who served as director of the State Department’s Strategic, Proliferation and Military Affairs Office. Theilmann told ThinkProgress, Iran “has never tested a medium-range weapon that can hit Western Europe let alone hit the United States.” He said ICBM development is a separate issue from development of a working nuclear warhead small enough to fit atop a missile: “There are serious doubts about 2015 for a nuclear warhead as well.” He went on:
It’s putting those things together that makes me confident that Iran can’t pose a threat to the United States by 2015. I think that’s using things loosely and not qualifying them properly for the Senator to say we know that or we can be sure of that.
Theilmann said he’d prefer that when politicians quote dates produced by policy professionals, they use the same qualifiers and caveats the experts use. “In order to use that 2015 date, one has to start using all the qualifiers that all the professionals use.” But that’s not always compatible with politics: “Their job is to raise alarms and scare people about it, I’m afraid.”