Would a nuclear Iran pose an existential threat to the United States?

Fact: Iran does not have the capability, nor is it approaching the capability, to pose an “existential threat” to the United States.  

During the January 13, 2013, confirmation hearing considering the nomination of former Senator Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) stated, “A nuclear Iran is an existential threat to the United States as well as Israel.”

The “existential threat” assertion is often made with regard to Israel, but many top Israeli military and intelligence officials reject it. However, the assertion that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose an “existential threat” to the United States–meaning it would have the capability to annihilate the entire country–is relatively unusual.

In order to pose a threat of annihilation to the United States, a state would need a nuclear arsenal consisting of a formidable supply of nuclear warheads and inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of reaching all major U.S. cities. The Soviet Union, for instance, had an arsenal of several thousand nuclear tipped missiles and was therefore believed to pose an “existential threat” to the United States. Iran, meanwhile, does not currently possess a nuclear weapon, has not tested or developed a missile that could reach the U.S., and is judged by American and Israeli intelligence agencies to have not made the decision to actually pursue a nuclear weapon.

Yet Gillibrand’s remarks were not off the cuff–she has made similar statements in the past, including in January 2012 when she released a press release that said, “The Iranian regime is becoming an existential threat to the United States and our allies and we must quickly act to enforce a broader set of sanctions.”

This statement is pure hyperbole. Here are the facts:

Even if Iran were to make the decision to successfully build a nuclear weapon–a move that would be detected by the IAEA and U.S. intelligence and other intelligence agencies–and even if Iran were to successfully develop a delivery vehicle for that weapon–which would take two to five years–Iran still would not have the capability to reach the United States with such a weapon, let alone produce enough long range nuclear tipped missiles to wipe out the U.S.

  • U.S. intelligence agencies assessed beginning in 1999 that Iran could have the ability to test-fire an ICBM as early as 2015, but that assessment has been increasingly caveated in subsequent intelligence reports. Recently, “an internal report for the U.S. Congress concluded that Iran probably is no longer on track, if it ever was, to having an ocean-crossing missile as soon as 2015.”
  • That report, by the the non-partisan Congressional Research Service, concludes that “it is increasingly uncertain whether Iran will be able to achieve ICBM capability by 2015”. (Congressional Research Service, “Iran’s Ballistic Missile and Space Launch Programs”, December 6, 2012)
  • The report does mention that Iran is developing and producing medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs), which would not be able to reach the U.S. According to the report, “U.S. intelligence agencies assess such missiles are inherently incapable of carrying nuclear warheads.”
  • The Shahab-3, which at 800-1000 km has the greatest estimated range, could reach Israel, Turkey, and portions of southeastern Europe according to the Center for Arms Control. (Center for Arms Control, “Fact Sheet: Iran’s Nuclear and Ballistic Missile Programs”)

A study by Foreign Policy found that even a hypothetical nuclear-armed Iran could not pose an existential threat to the U.S.

  • The “Nuclear Annihilation Test (NAT) Index”, commissioned by Foreign Policy magazine, was designed as a way “of systematically and empirically assessing the existential threat that nuclear-weapon states (NWSs), and potential nuclear-weapon states, pose to one another.” (Foreign Policy, “Are We Focusing on the Wrong Nuclear Threat?”, May 24, 2012)
  • For the purposes of its simulation, Foreign Policy assumes a hypothetical scenario in which Iran has produced an arsenal of 10 nuclear weapons and the means to deliver these warheads via missiles. Even under these hypothetical assumptions, the test rates the nuclear annihilation threat that Iran could pose the U.S. a 0.5, which signifies a “minimal threat” and is the lowest possible on its scale.
  • By comparison, China, a state which is believed to posses around 300 nuclear warheads and has ICBM capability, is listed by the NAT Index as posing the greatest nuclear threat to the US with a NAT score of 6 (out of the maximum 9).

Even if they have nuclear weapons and ICBMs, Iran’s decision makers are not oblivious to the obvious costs of nuclear retaliation and the jeopardy they would put the existence of their own country in if they launched a nuclear attack.

  • To this end, a previous IranFact article discusses the near ubiquitous belief of Israeli and American national security officials that the Iranian government is a rational actor.
  • Both Israel and the United States possess  second strike capabilities that effectively deter any existential threat that a nuclear Iran may pose. The second strike capabilities of the United States are quite obvious, with the vastness of the country and its nuclear submarines and bombers.
  • For Israel, one might easily assume that a few nuclear bombs could completely destroy the tiny country, but the backbone of Israel’s second strike capability lies not on land, but on German-built submarines which are in constant deployment. (Foreign Affairs, “Why Israel Should Trade Its Nukes”, October 25, 2012)