Jeffrey LewisIranian ICBM by 2015?

The Pentagon submitted a report to Congress containing the claim that Iran could develop an intercontinental ballistic missile by 2015.

Ah, the dreaded could.

Section 1245 of the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act required the Department of Defense to submit a report to Congress on Iran’s military power, similar to the annual Report on the Military Power of the People’s Republic of China.

The report is rather plain — here is the full text. The report looks rather more like the initial editions of Chinese Military Power in 1998 and 1999, before CMP evolved into the giant full-color extravaganza that evokes the old Soviet Military Power in its heyday.

Phil Stewart and Adam Entous of Reuters noticed this sentence stating that Iran could develop an ICBM by 2015 and made it there lede:

With sufficient foreign assistance, Iran could probably develop and test an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching the United States by 2015.

As you know, once a wire service spots a lede, the pack follows.

Unfortunately, this is just intelligence community boilerplate — the same sentence has appeared in every edition of Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat: 2009, 2006, 2003 and 2000. Seriously, you can look it up.

At least these two reporters attempted to ask the right question: Is this different from the May 2009 NIE that U.S. officials told Entous “deemed Tehran unlikely to have a long-range missile until between 2015 and 2020.” (The May 2009 NIE was the same one SECDEF described cited in defense of the phased adaptive approach to missile defense in Europe.)

Good question. Are the two estimates — “could by 2015” “unlikely before 2015” — consistent?

As it turns out, yes!

In the modern area of estimative language and politicized intelligence, the two estimates are perfectly consistent with one another. The word “could,” thanks to the 1998 Rumsfeld Commission, is estimatese (or estimative language) for “not likely.”

Here is how the intelligence community explained their novel use of “could” in Foreign Missile Developments and the Ballistic Missile Threat:

Our assessments of future missile developments are inexact and subjective because they are based on often fragmentary information. Many countries surround their ballistic missile programs with extensive secrecy and compartmentalization, and some employ deception. Although such key milestones as flight-testing are difficult to hide, we may miss others. To address these uncertainties, we assess both the earliest date that countries could test various missiles, based largely on engineering judgments made by experts inside and outside the Intelligence Community, on the technical capabilities and resources of the countries in question, and, in many cases, on continuing foreign assistance; and when countries would be likely to test such missiles, factoring into the above assessments potential delays caused by technical, political, or economic hurdles. We judge that countries are much less likely to test as early as the hypothetical “could” dates than they are by our projected “likely” dates.

How f’ed up is that?

As a result, every estimate has two sub-estimates: The real one (likely) and the one for missile defense advocates (could). Guess which one headline writers like?

You can’t really blame analysts — missile defense advocates worked them over quite bit in the 1990s to secure precisely this outcome. Still, I think analysts should try this abomination out on their bosses at work:

Do you think you could finish that long overdue draft of the NIE by the end of next week?

I judge that I could.

[Three weeks later]

I thought you said you could finish the draft of the NIE by the end of last week? We’ve had to cancel some meetings already.

Yes, well, that assumed that no significant political, technical or economic delays. As you know, “could complete” dates are substantially earlier than “likely to complete” dates.

One more thing, Mike Emmanuel of FOX News — I know, I know, I know — claimed the estimate is “buried” in the report. On the contrary, the report contains a full section on Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities. That section comes at the end, but simply because the report follows the structure established by Congress. So if anyone “buried” the claim, it was Representative McKeon and Senator Brownback, who pressed for the study. Somehow, I sense that burying the estimate was not their intent.

So, the bottom line is that there is not, as far as I can tell, a new estimate.


  1. FSB

    Yes, Iran could have ICBMs by 2015, and we could have a realistic test of our BMD by then also, but both are unlikely.

    It could be that the GMD and SM3s could intercept Iranian and NK missiles, but it is unlikely that they will provide any kind of an effective defense.

    Could BMD be an expensive bucket of sh*t? It is very likely.

  2. Scott Monje (History)

    I’ve seen several references to this report already, including references to the imminent development of ICBMs and to Qods Force activities in Latin America, but I must say I have yet to see anyone cite: “This reflects Iran’s perception of threats and defensive military doctrine, which is designed to slow an invasion and force a diplomatic solution to hostilities.”

    I also note that the 2007 NIE still seems to be in effect.

    Regarding Afghanistan, though, it’s curious how they lump together Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Ismail Khan without further comment. After all, one is an insurgent and the other is a sometime provincial governor and cabinet minister.

  3. Mark Pyruz (History)

    Ah, I was looking for this report, Jeffrey. Thanks for the links.

    After reviewing several pages, I already see a number of misperceptions.

  4. Jochen Schischka (History)

    Hmmm, if i assume that this mysterious ‘iranian ICBM’ is somehow related to the ‘new iranian satellite carrier’ Simorgh, then 2015+ may perhaps be a reasonable date, considering the apparent current incompleteness of the belonging PongDong-Ni-style launch complex (which will, according to my interpretation, come into existence in the following years around the coordinates 35°14’21.50“N, 53°57’06.73“E – if i’m correct, then this will be the exact position of the launching stool); Let’s wait and see.

    I personally tend to classify a military application of the Safir as unlikely – too little reserves left in that design for adding a militarily significant (aka more than ~100kg) payload; At best, the upper stage could be partially or completely replaced by a warhead, but the result of such a course of action would rather be an MRBM (with roughly estimated ~700-3000km range, depending on warhead size and general configuration) than an IRBM. And that would be a rather ungainly MRBM, over 20m long, with slow initial acceleration and requiring a fixed launch tower for upper stage fueling (if two-staged).
    It’s a completely different picture with the ‘Simorgh’, though – that missile is huge in comparison, and it potentially will offer enough reserves for transporting reasonable payloads perhaps even at intercontinental ranges even without a third stage (though it’s hard to say for sure at the recent level of knowledge). Of course, a missile of such a weight and dimension would be difficult to employ from a TEL or MEL, but launching that one from a silo is not that difficult, either (especially with russian consultation). A possible show stopper may perhaps be precision, though. Not much use shooting at something you can’t hit…

    What i do find really hard to reproduce are the range estimates in that report for all missile systems except for ‘Tondar’ (aka CSS-8), ‘Shahab-1’ (aka Scud-B) and ‘Shahab-2’ (aka Scud-C).
    If the numbers given in that table would be kilometers instead of statute miles, then strangely enough everything would harmonize a lot better with my own estimations/reconstructions/simulations of the ‘Shahab-3’ (aka Nodong-A), ‘Shahab-3 variant’ (aka Ghadr-1 or, most likely, Nodong-B) and ‘Sejil MRBM’.

    The question is, am i too pessimistic, or were the analysts preparing that particular report too optimistic (in the name of ‘erring on the side of caution’)?

    In any case, it would be nice if they could back up their claims e.g. with actual radar tracking data or at least some information on the assumed simulating model of that particular missile type.

  5. yousaf

    Some of this, esp. re. ICBMs etc., was spelled out in yesterday’s senate hearing also, in case you have a couple of hrs to kill.

    Concur that many things “could” happen that don’t.

    For the sake of argument, let’s say Iran did make an ICBM by 2015. I’m not sure why a stable nuclear deterrent relationship with Iran is not possible as the experts who have studied this question have said it is.

    At the Carnegie event today the Chinese rep. — Col. Dr. Yao — said that the likely responses to the US missile defense plans would be for China to increase her stockpile and/or make a BMD shield of her own.

    Is this ineffective shield really worth increased stockpiles in China (and therefore, India and Pakistan, and possibly, Russia and US)?

    Since it will never neutralize the possible future nuclear threat from Iran, what would we do differently with the planned phased adaptive missile defense activated?

    Is false peace of mind and increased world wide stockpiles worth the billions of dollars this will cost?

  6. anon

    Oh come on… most people know the biggest threat to America is those inside the Beltway.

  7. dylan (History)

    Given that the PRC has long been, and by all indications is continuing to, “increase its stockpile” and develop BMD irrespective of US policy shifts, Col. Yao’s threat seems rather moot.

  8. mike

    wonder what the wonks think the CPE would be on a first try at an ICBM? would they get inside a click?

  9. James (History)

    In related news, I could, with sufficient foreign assistance, develop and test an ICBM capable of reaching my neighbor’s yard by 2015. With sufficient foreign assistance anything is possible. That is, after all, the definition of SUFFICIENT.

    Alas, I suspect that the assistance I receive will not be sufficient. My neighborino will have to wait for the next report to discover his fate circa 2020.

  10. Andy (History)


    I disagree with your analysis just a bit.

    First, while I agree the estimative language here is atrocious, once it’s peeled away judgments themselves are typical. “Could” is simply a “worst case” assessment, which has a long tradition in the IC and is valuable to policymakers.

    Historically, estimates were balanced between “worst case/most dangerous” and “most likely” assessments which were clearly justified and delineated. Today most estimates, in my judgment, are skewed heavily toward the former with intentionally obfuscating language. I think this state of affairs is primarily an effect of 9/11 and not the Rumsfeld commission. 9/11 taught many analysts, as well as those near the top of the IC hierarchy, that hedging toward worst-case assessments is better for one’s career than the alternative – in other words, crying wolf is better than getting eaten after the fact by the wolves in Congress. This is actually typical behavior following a major intelligence failure.

    Finally, and this may be related to the Rumsfeld commission, is the increasingly public nature of intelligence. Published IC assessments are divorced from the assumptions that underpin them which makes evaluation of those judgments difficult to impossible. Those pushing agendas, as you note, can easily spin those judgments into a desired conclusion. This stands in stark contrast to the kind of open-source analysis provided by experts which occurs here at ACW and elsewhere. Given the publicity these IC estimates receive, the already strong tendency in the IC to hedge assessments is reinforced.

  11. FSB

    Really, dylan? So you think the Chinese nuclear doctrine evolves in a vacuum without linkages to the outside world?

    Do you think it may change the rate of increase of the Chinese stockpile if we field a BMD system that offers us little protection, but does upset the deterrence calculations of other states?

    Do you think if the Chinese start seriously funding their BMD system (in response to ours) instead of having just a small test program, and position their future “Aegis” ships in international waters around the world that this will be helpful?

    Do you think Russia may notice?

    Only inside the beltway is the “Fallacy of the Last Move” an actual modus operandi.

  12. Jun Okumura (History)

    So I guess my question is: Does anyone know the difference between “could” and “may”?

  13. anon

    It makes complete sense that Iran would like to have a nuclear deterrent — even if it obtains ICBMs in the future, it is not going to use them in a first-strike. What is all the hoopla about? Losing our air- sea- and land-superiority over a region that does not belong to us? So be it. Better than causing WW III.

  14. Major Lemon (History)

    Iran will not need ICBMs to attack US cities. It has other methods of delivery.

  15. Pete (History)

    Actually the sentence “With sufficient foreign assistance, Iran could probably develop and test an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching the United States by 2015” does not appear in each edition of the B&CMT since 2000. In the editions prior to 2009 it read “With continued foreign assistance…”

    According to the first google hit, the definition of “sufficient” means “enough to meet the needs of a situation or a proposed end” and the definition of “continued” means “lasting or extending without interuption”.

    In prior editions the threat report claimed “With foreign assistance [extending without interuption], Iran could probably develop and test an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching the United States by 2015.” But the latest report claims “With [enough] foreign assistance [to develop and test an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States by 2015], Iran could probably develop and test an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching the United States by 2015”.

    Sorry everyone… it looks like the authors of the report are 100% right.

  16. Andrew

    Two different things to note:

    1) A report from the EastWest Institute stated: “Iran will not be able, for at least ten to fifteen years, to master independently the “critical technologies” for advanced mobile or silo-based IRBMs and ICBMs because it does not have the scientific, economic, and industrial infrastructure for developing these critical technologies.”

    2) In his posting, Jeffrey (mistakenly?) wrote “Phil Stewart and Adam Entous of Reuters noticed this sentence stating that Iran could develop an ICBM by 2012

    So I think the new date can be pushed up to 2012. We have 618 days to prepare!

  17. FSB

    yes, they are 100% right, since it is a 100% tautological statement, to 100% cover their asses.

    With sufficient foreign assistance, I could make an ICBM by tomorrow, teatime.

    No one said that the report writers are wrong — they are correct, but by definition of their statement.

    It is a meaningless tautological statement to hype the possible future “threat” from a non-nuclear power 2nd world state.

    What would the DoD and NNSA and very our domestic “republican guard” do without a threat out there somewhere with them crazy muslims with nuk-ku-ler weapons that don’t exist?

  18. Scott Monje (History)


    I would assume that the significance of a shift from “continued foreign assistance” to “sufficient foreign assistance” is that the analysts are subtly saying they no longer assume Iran is getting foreign assistance. (It has to exist before it can continue.) Or is that just me?

  19. FSB
  20. yousaf

    Regarding the ‘threat’ from a possible future nuclear armed Iran with possible future ICBMs, and its perception and amplification by our National Security apparatus —

    “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.”
    — Clay Shirky

    …or you can read Bob Gates on how bureaucracies invent reasons to keep in business.

    “Finally, everything must be suffused with strong doses of modesty and realism. When all is said and done, there are limits to what the United States can do to influence the direction of radically different countries and cultures. And even the most enlightened and modernized interagency apparatus is still a bureaucracy, prone to the same parochial and self-serving tendencies as the system it has replaced.”

    “I also once warned publicly of a “creeping militarization” of aspects of U.S. foreign policy if imbalances within the national security system were not addressed. As a career CIA officer who watched the military’s role in intelligence grow ever larger, I am keenly aware that the Defense Department, because of its sheer size, is not only the 800-pound gorilla of the U.S. government but one with a sometimes very active pituitary gland.”

  21. Tal Inbar

    I am VERY amused – the link to the EWI report provided by Andrew depicts the Israeli made Shavit satellite launch vehicle instead of the Iranian Sejill missile.

    As for the MANY false assessments in the report itself, enough was said and written.

  22. nick (History)

    This type of discussion on a truly baseless Iran’s non-existent ICBM threat towards USA, proves couple of things for me. First, certain elements within USG are after the next war in ME to maintain hegemonic aspirations of US. Secondly, USG has reached the conclusion that sanctions are not going to stop enrichment, or may have a long latency to impact such decision. Finally, Fox News is no longer the lower bound for misrepresentation of information.

    The idea that Iran will take its only one ton LEU and convert it to HEU and put it on top of non-existing Simorgh and shoot it at NYC doesn’t even pass the laughter test, but we continue to make that argument here and in all these think tank presentations around DC. Those within IC know full well that IRI is not even thinking about hitting Israel, let alone Europe or US for that matter, but the idea sells lots of goodies; keep up the good work we need the cash for the recovery.

  23. Andrew


    As for the nondepiction of an Iranian Sejill missile, the report actually makes no claim that it is an Iranian Sejill missile. In fact, a slightly closer reading of the report would reveal that buried all the way on the fourth page of the report is a caption for the picture reads “Cover photo: REUTERS/Ho New | Israel’s spy satellite “Ofek 7” is launched from Palmachim, southern Israel June 11, 2007”)

    No one is claiming that the document is perfect. If you have problem with a consensus document written by people from MIT, the Brookings Institution, Stanford, the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Russian Federal Nuclear Center, and generals from the US and Russia that is perfectly reasonable. I do notice that you don’t list any of the “MANY false assessments in the report itself” though.

    Anyways, we shouldn’t even be discussing this. Aren’t there only 616 days or so left to prepare?

  24. Andrew (History)

    Comment under the Fox News headline: Iranian Missile Could Hit the US by 2105
    “Worlds Slowest Missile”

  25. mohahamed (History)

    no way they will do this, but it is true that they can, the US has taken a fairly passive stand so far with regards to iran’s missile in sharp contrast with the nuclear dossier, the uranians will want a low profile in the area of rocketry because they have enuff on their plate, so any icbm will be civilian in the form satellite launcher

  26. Jochen Schischka (History)


    And, as i wrote in my other comment on this thread, this is exactly where the ‘Simorgh’ comes into play.

    For the reasons mentioned above, i think the ‘Safir’ in a hypothetical military application will result in a rather poor MRBM, not an ICBM or IRBM.
    On the other hand, the ‘Simorgh’ may potentially be large enough for a ‘dual-use-role’:
    1.) As a space launcher for satellites up to a size of ~500-1000kg and
    2.) As a nuclear-tipped surface-to-surface-missile with intercontinental range.

    For the first option (SLV), Iran will need two things:

    1a.) A working missile (not yet demonstrated, only a large-scale mock-up and components shown earlier this year);
    1b.) Completed launching infrastructure (apparently under construction for quite some time, but seems to have been stalled for several years in favor of the ‘Safir’ launch infrastructure);

    Precision is largely irrelevant in this context, as long as some sort of stable orbit is reached, as is payload – a battery-powered radio transmitting ‘beep-beep-beep’ for some time is more than enough to mark that as a ‘scientific mission’ (see e.g. Sputnik).

    For the second option (ICBM), Iran will need four things:

    2a.) Reliably working missile of sufficient precision;
    2b.) Complete launch infrastructure (preferably silo-hardened);
    2c.) Working nuclear charge of adequate yield (to compensate for maximum deviation);
    2d.) Reentry and fuzing technology (so that the nuclear charge will survive the transport via missile and detonate at the right height around the desired coordinates);

    Points 1a.) and 1b.) and even 2b.) and 2c.) may be comparably easy to achieve (thus i’d assume an iranian ‘breakout’-capability in these areas of perhaps 1-5 years, depending on ambition, funding and ‘sufficient outside help’…). Points 2a.) and 2d.), possibly also 2c.), may be a lot harder to achieve, though. These latter points will make the difference between a ‘propaganda weapon’ (with political impact but no military credibility) and an actual threat.

    So far, i have not yet seen any evidence that the Iranians (or the North Koreans) would be working on an ‘orbital sample return capsule’/ICBM reentry vehicle. And i’m somewhat sceptical on the precision of current iranian missile guidance systems (which all seem to be more or less modified Scud-Horizont/Vertikant-systems at the moment). In both areas, fast progress without lengthy (and visible) development programs (with many setbacks) would indicate a high level of outside help in my eyes.
    And don’t forget: no full end-to-end test series (of ~6-30 shots, at least one of them involving an actual nuclear detonation over the target area) – no usable weapon!
    It may be possible to use an untried weapon (like the Germans in WW2 with ‘Rheinbote’ or the Iraqis in GW1 and 2 with ‘Al-Hussain’), but not advisable (‘Rheinbote’ flew about 20km too far, ‘Al-Hussain’ broke up over the target…).
    This last point may be indeed very difficult to achieve for the Iranians – they lack an adequate intercontinental testing range!
    Nonetheless, ‘Simorgh’ will be a ‘fleet-in-being’, just like the battleship ‘Tirpitz’ was in WW2 – even if not actually deployable, the other side will be forced to take the (worst-case) threat into consideration (and waste valuable resources in the process).

  27. Jeffrey Lewis (History)


    I am trying to get in touch with you, but the email you provided does not work.

    Please send me a note at: armscontrolwonk [at] or use the email form to send me your email address.


  28. Maxtrue (History)

    My bad if this posts twice. First had some typos….

    I would like to see the accuracy here regarding Syria, Iran and NK. Let’s take your average initial spin and even follow-up spin after each “incident” in the chronology of the threat matrix and then see the accuracy rating. My suspicion is that you have averaged rather poorly about predicting when Iran and their friends acquire the parts of proliferation and WMDs.

    Perhaps proliferation might be best served by down-playing the odds, but by an Iranian understanding that tungsten properly alloyed and delivered from a sub-orbital height can produce .2 or more kilotons of energy upon impact. Enough to terminate their hardened facilities.

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