Center for Strategic Communication

U.S. ballistic missile interceptor. Photo: Navy

Another year, another Pentagon report on Iran’s military power. Which means another round of imprecise predictions about when Iran may first test an intercontinental ballistic missile. But this time, the Pentagon no longer believes a future Iranian missile will be able to strike America. And another reason not to worry: Even if Iran does develop one, it’ll probably suck.

The shift can be seen in a sentence in this year’s Annual Report on Military Power of Iran (.pdf), first provided to Bloomberg by the Pentagon. The report warns: “With sufficient foreign assistance, Iran may technically be capable of flight-testing an intercontinental ballistic missile by 2015.” Which sounds scary. But it’s actually a less gloomy estimate than the last Pentagon report on the subject, which came out two years ago.

Back then, the Pentagon said that Iran could produce a missile “capable of reaching the United States by 2015.” Now, there’s no reference to such a missile being able to hit any place outside of the Middle East or Eastern Europe, let alone America. All the Defense Department is saying is that Iran might be able to conduct its very first flight test of such a weapon. Then again, it might not.

Before you ask: This isn’t just an accident of editing. Words are chosen very carefully in the Pentagon’s assessment of the U.S.’s number-one enemy. This means Americans can sleep safely: The Pentagon doesn’t believe an Iranian ICBM will obliterate the East Coast any time soon. The Pentagon also follows a shift from the United States’ spy agencies, which used to hype Iran’s missile threat to the homeland but then quietly hushed on the estimates.

And that’s all moot without Iran acquiring “sufficient foreign assistance.” Iran’s not going to develop an ICBM on its own, the report suggests. It’s likely North Korea regularly shares missile components with Iran, and has done so — to some extent — since supplying Iran with Scuds during the Iran-Iraq War. (.pdf) Problem is North Korea’s long-range missile program has a 4 for 4 record of failures, including such missile stunts as blowing up prematurely and flopping into the sea.

Which may be because North Korea’s missile program is in development hell, and that its rocket tests may not be tests so much, but as a means to show off. It’s not quite vaporware, but the technical obstacles are so great, and North Korean understanding of how to fix them is so little, that even attempts to fix problems can cause more problems. Iranian engineers reportedly had a ringside seat to North Korea’s most recent launch in April. But it’s not clear how much information they gathered.

The report is less discreet about Iran’s other ballistic missiles. Iran “continues to develop ballistic missiles that can range regional adversaries, Israel, and Eastern Europe,” including a longer-ranged version of the Shahab-3, and a medium-range missile called the Ashura, the report notes. Iran’s missile and rocket arsenal is also seeing “steady growth” and is becoming more accurate, with improved munitions. Iran is also getting better at targeting ships. The report also references Iran’s “multistage space launche vehicles” as a potential platform for testing ICBM components. But that doesn’t mean Iran is close to translating a space rocket into a workable weapon.

Iran, though, wants you think its missiles are pretty great. Iran’s semi-official state news agency, Fars, responded to the Pentagon report by rounding up news about “a series of massive military drills.” The news agency stressed Iran’s weapons “should not be perceived as a threat to any other country,” but on Thursday aired comments made last week from Iranian army Brig. Gen. Mohammad Pakpour, who said if the United States were to attack Iran, there are plans to use missiles to destroy all U.S. bases near Iran in a “swift and crushing response.”

Hrm. But what about that 2015 timeline on the ICBM? The report wouldn’t be the first to conclude that Iran was only a few years away. Note: That doesn’t mean Iran isn’t 10 years away, if Iran spends the money on a development program. But U.S. intelligence and military estimates have a track record of calling it short. We were supposed to see an Iranian ICBM in 2003, and another in 2010, and we’re still supposed to see one in 2015.

A timeline is one thing, and a working ICBM is another. The military still thinks these may be possible, and relatively soon. Though it’s worth it to be skeptical. And hitting grandma’s house with one is something else.