Three weeks before a deadline for a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran, the failure to address the Islamic Republic's ballistic missile program in any agreement could be a dangerous omission, a panel of experts told U.S. lawmakers Wednesday.
When Iran and the P5+1 group - the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany - announced a "framework" understanding on which a final deal, due by June 30, would be based, the issue of Iran’s missiles was not included.
Yet Tehran, the experts pointed out, has the largest ballistic missile arsenal in the Middle East.
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David Cooper of the U.S. Naval War College testified before the House Foreign Affairs sub-committee on the Middle East and North Africa, that the links between medium and long-range missiles and a nuclear payload are clear.
"At this moment, Iran is the only country in the world that says it has no nuclear weapons ambitions and yet has fielded an intermediate-range ballistic missile," Cooper said.
Robert Joseph, senior scholar at the National Institute for Public Policy, underlined what's at stake if a deal that is flawed - as he sees it - goes forward.
"If there is an agreement along the lines described by the White House and the Iranian leadership, I believe it will represent the single greatest strategic mistake in the national security area in the last 35 years," he said.
Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told the panel that Iranian medium- and long-range missiles are notoriously innaccurate. He said the Israelis have long viewed them not as a strategic weapon but one meant to spread mass terror.
But he and the other experts agreed that Iran's missile technology - developed with significant technical input from North Korea and Russia - is improving.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn (former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency) said he fears the consequences if the deal now on the table goes through.
"Once sanctions are lifted, the genie is out of the bottle; we’re going to see proliferation in the region because we’ve looked at this too narrowly," he said.
Flynn testified that Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Egypt "are already talking to the Russians and the Chinese about developing nuclear capabilities in their countries."
The panel's chairwoman, Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, opened the hearing by saying there are "many glaring omissions" in the possible deal that have caused many to characterize it as "weak and dangerous."
Ros-Lehtinen said the fact that Iran continues to make advances on Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) - which are only used to carry nuclear weapons - belie the notion that Iran’s program is for peaceful uses.
"Perhaps the biggest failure of the negotiations was to limit it to just the nuclear profile" and not include Iran’s continued progress on [its] ballistic missile program," she said.