TEL AVIV, Israel, Aug. 25 (UPI) -- Uzi Rubin, former head of Israel's ballistic missile defense program, says Iran has made a "technological and strategic breakthrough" with its Sajjil-2 intermediate-range ballistic missile, which will be able to hit a swathe of European states in three to four years.
That assertion, initially made to Jane's Defense Weekly and reiterated at a U.S. Army-sponsored missile defense conference in Huntsville, Ala., on Aug. 20, intensified concerns that Iran has stepped up its drive to acquire ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
On the face of it, Rubin's comments gave weight to Israeli fears that Iran will soon pose an existential threat to the Jewish state.
Israeli leaders have been pressing the United States to take firmer action to ensure that Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons and have suggested unilateral pre-emptive strikes if something is not done soon to curb Tehran.
Rubin masterminded the development of Israel's Arrow anti-missile system, the top layer of the country's emerging multilayered missile defense shield, from 1991 to 1999.
He said that the two-stage Sajjil-2 has an estimated range of 1,560 miles, not 1,250 miles as previously thought, and that the successful testing of a solid-fueled missile on May 20 was a major breakthrough for Iran.
This was because unlike the Shehab-3, Iran's operational ballistic missile already deployed with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Sajjil uses solid propellant rather than the less reliable liquid fuel. It is the first Iranian missile to do so, opening the door for more advanced technology.
Rubin did not specifically say that the Iranians would have produced a nuclear warhead for the Sajjil-2 in the timeframe he cited. But Israeli officials have claimed that Tehran could produce a nuclear warhead within a year once Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, gives the go-ahead.
In May, 12 prominent U.S. and Russian analysts gave a different view in a report issued by the EastWest Institute, a New York-based think tank that monitors global security issues.
The report said it would take Iran six to eight years to develop a ballistic missile with a 460-pound conventional warhead and a range of 1,250 miles, and six years to develop a nuclear warhead.
The U.S. Air Force's National Air and Space Intelligence Center said in a June report that Iran, even with help from foreign sources, would need six years to produce an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States.
"Based on its demonstrated achievement in solid propulsion and staging, Iran will face no technological challenges" in doubling the Sajjil's range with a 1-ton warhead, Rubin told the Huntsville conference.
"If they push it -- put all the budget, put all the engineers -- three or four years" is all it would take to give the Sajjil a range of around 2,500 miles, enough to hit London. "Will they do it? I'm not sure."
But he noted that the predictions about Iran's ever-growing missile reach "are coming true, perhaps sooner than anyone thought. … I think there was an underestimation of Iranian capability."
Rubin's conclusions would appear to inject a new urgency in U.S. efforts to install a fixed missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic to protect the United States, a proposal that has drawn vehement objections from Moscow.
In that regard, on Aug. 20 the Boeing Co. came up with a novel system that may overcome Russian opposition to U.S. missile installations on its doorstep: 10 47,500-pound mobile interceptors that could be airlifted in giant Boeing C-17 transports to temporary launch sites and then flown back to the United States when no longer required.