Iran has the ability to fire missiles at U.S. targets in the Middle East and "temporarily" close a key sea transit route, a senior intelligence official said Thursday.
Tehran has a missile arsenal capable of reaching "targets throughout the region and into Eastern Europe," Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess, Defense Intelligence Agency director, told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"Iran has … threatened to launch missiles against the United States and our allies in the region in response to an attack" on its nuclear facilities or other targets, he said.
What's more, Iran "could also employ its terrorist surrogates worldwide," Burgess said. He also noted that "Iran can close the Strait of Hormuz," the key sea lane used to move oil and other goods to destinations around the globe. The U.S. intelligence community believes Iran "is unlikely to initiate or intentionally provoke a conflict or launch a preemptive attack," Burgess told the panel.
The blunt assessment of Iranian intentions and offensive capabilities comes amid increasing tensions between Tehran, Israel and the United States over Iran's nuclear weapons program.
Alireza Nader, an analyst at the RAND Corporation, said the DIA chief's assessment of Iran's naval and missile capabilities sounds accurate.
"Iran does have missiles capable of hitting U.S. facilities in the Persian Gulf, and notably, in Afghanistan," Nader said. "And it is known to be in development of long-range missiles that could reach Eastern Europe. It has a pretty robust missile program."
Under a scenario where Iranian leaders ordered a missile strike, U.S. officials and analysts question whether any would hit their intended targets.
"Iran's missiles are strategic weapons, not tactical weapons," said Nader. That's because they lack the kinds of precision guidance systems fitted on U.S. ballistic missiles.
"Still, if Tehran fired several hundred missiles, it likely would get at least a few past" missile defense systems in the region operated by the U.S. military and its allies, Nader said.
The RAND analyst said the Iranian Navy could employ a number of tools to temporarily shut down the Strait of Hormuz, and frustrate the U.S. Navy. That list includes "hundreds of small boats equipped with relatively sophisticated anti-ship weaponry" and mines on the sea floor, Nader said.
Should tensions over Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions escalate into a military conflict, Nader said, "Iran is looking for an asymmetric war, mostly at sea." That means the conflict would feature those small boats and mines instead of war ships firing on one another.