In an effort to provoke any possible opposition in U.S. political circles to a nuclear deal with Iran, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has returned to exploiting an old claim that Iran is building intercontinental ballistic missiles that could hit the United States.
The Netanyahu claim takes advantage of the extreme position that has been taken on the issue by Pentagon and Air Force intelligence organizations but goes even further.
In an Oct. 1 interview with Bob Schieffer of CBS News, Netanyahu said Iranians are "building ICBMs to reach...the American mainland within a few years." And in an interview with Charlie Rose a week later, he said the Iranians "are developing ICBMs -- not for us, but for you."
Netanyahu added, "The American intelligence agency knows as well as we do that Iran is developing ICBMs."
Independent specialists on the issue say, however, that no evidence supports Netanyahu's claim.
Michael Elleman of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, the author of an authoritative study on Iran's missile programme, told IPS, "I've seen no evidence of Iranian ICBM development, let alone a capability."
Elleman said Iran would need to test a missile at least a half dozen -- and more likely a dozen times -- before it would have an operational capability for an ICBM.
Thus far, however, Iran has not even displayed, much less tested, a larger version of its existing space launch vehicle that would be a necessary step toward an ICBM, according to David Wright, co-director of the Global Security Programme at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Iran has only tested a space launch vehicle that can put a very small satellite into orbit, Wright told IPS.
"The fact that it's not happening suggests something is holding them back," said Wright. "Clearly we're not seeing them moving very fast in that direction."
The highly politicized nature of U.S. intelligence assessments on the Iranian ballistic missile program has given Netanyahu the opportunity to make the claims of an incipient Iranian ICBM without fear of being called out.
Pentagon and industry interests pushing the idea of an Iranian ICBM threat to get support for spending on a missile defense system have long had a deep impact on intelligence assessments of the issue.
Netanyahu actually began warning of Iranian ICBMs targeting the United States 15 years ago, after a commission on foreign ballistic missile threats led by Donald Rumsfeld had warned in mid-1998 that Iran and North Korea "could" threaten the United States with ICBMs within five years.
The Rumsfeld Commission, which was organized to pressure the Bill Clinton administration to approve a national missile defense system, arrived at its five-year timeline by inviting the four major military contractors to suggest how Iran might conceivably succeed in testing an ICBM.
It also rejected the normal practice in threat assessment of distinguishing between what was theoretically possible and what was likely.