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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

Donald Trump tweeted about an Iranian missile test. Did it happen?

By Louis Jacobson on Tuesday, September 26th, 2017

It was largely overlooked amid a flurry of tweets about pro football players kneeling for the national anthem, but President Donald Trump also claimed Iran had recently test-fired a missile capable of reaching Israel.

Trump is an opponent of the nuclear agreement between Iran, the United States and other countries.

In the Sept. 23 tweet, Trump wrote, "Iran just test-fired a Ballistic Missile capable of reaching Israel. They are also working with North Korea. Not much of an agreement we have!"

Two days later, media reports cast doubt on whether there had indeed been a new test. A Fox News headline blared, "Iran's supposed missile launch was fake, U.S. officials say."

Was Trump incorrect? It's hard to tell.

Despite Iranian claims that it occurred, U.S. news reports quoted unnamed administration officials saying it never happened. The stories quote anonymous sources, which we do not use in our reporting.

Neither the White House nor the Pentagon responded to inquiries by PolitiFact. Without such responses, we cannot independently confirm or debunk Trumpís tweet, so we will not put his statement to the Truth-O-Meter.

That said, weíll take a closer look at the news stories and the broader concern of an Iranian missile threat.

ĎThis is simply a mistakeí

One day before Trump sent his tweet, a state-run Iranian media outlet released a video that seemed to show a new missile test. The media outletís tweet said, "Video: #Iran successfully test-fires new ballistic missile."

But on Sept. 25, two days after Trump sent his tweet, Fox News posted an article saying that Iran had "never fired" a new ballistic missile around the time of Trumpís tweet.

The Iranian footage, Fox reported, "was more than seven months old ó dating back to a failed launch in late January, which resulted in the missile exploding shortly after liftoff, according to two U.S. officials."

Later that day, CNN quoted an administration source confirming the substance of Foxís report, adding that American intelligence radars and sensors did not pick up on any evidence of such a test in that timeframe.

Nuclear-policy experts offered Trump some leeway on his claim about a new missile test given the misinformation from Iran.

"This is simply a mistake by the president," said Richard Nephew, an adjunct professor at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. "Such things can happen, after all. There is a lot of misinformation out there about Iran and its activities."

Matthew Bunn, a nuclear policy specialist at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, concurred, saying he was more concerned about Trumpís preference to condense thorny policy issues through Twitter, a medium not known for encouraging careful reflection or nuanced wording

How serious an issue are Iranian ballistic missiles?

Whether or not there was a new Iranian missile test, many foreign-policy experts agreed that Iran has made progress in this area, and that it has become a worrisome issue for U.S. policymakers.

The nuclear agreement with Iran does not cover missiles -- only nuclear technology. United Nations resolution 2231 urges Iran not to conduct ballistic missile tests, but it does not specifically forbid them from such tests, and Iran has not let the resolution stop its missile efforts.

"There are certainly good reasons to be concerned about the Iranian missile program," Bunn said. "They are developing longer-range and more capable missiles, and those missiles can in fact threaten Israel and some of Europe. For those reasons, the Iranian missile program is a key driver of the U.S. missile defense deployments in Europe, of Israelís missile defenses, and of consideration of beefing up missile defenses in some other countries in the Middle East."

Even if no Iranian launch was conducted in September, the apparently failed test from earlier this year was significant enough to rattle officials in Washington. Trump said at the time that he was putting the country "on notice."

Iranís claim about the September launch concerned a Khoramshahr missile, which has a 1,250-mile reach, according to remarks by an Iranian general in the official IRNA news agency.

If thatís accurate, then Trump would be correct about the missileís ability to hit Israel; the distance from Tehran to Tel Aviv is about 1,000 miles. (Nephew added that Iran "has had missiles capable of reaching Israel for years, well before President Barack Obama took office.)

Is Iran working with North Korea?

As for Trumpís accusation that Iran is "working with North Korea" -- experts say itís likely, but evidence is spotty.

"Iran and North Korea have long cooperated in some aspects of their missile development and probably in some aspects of their nuclear programs as well," Anthony H. Cordesman, a national-security specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote recently. "Some of the details of this cooperation are clear, but many are not, at least at the open-source level of data available outside the intelligence community."

Sources: Email interview with John Pike, director of globalsecurity.org, Sept. 26, 2016