Jeffrey LewisErrol Morris on Shahab Images

Errol Morris still pretty much rules.

We understand Stalin’s intentions by removing comrades, but what is the purpose of these Iranian missile photographs? They are clearly altered. The question remains: Why, and to what end?

The government of Iran could not have created a more self-serving controversy. It has focused our attention on Iranian military might more than ever. What will we remember — the digital manipulation of this photograph or the missiles streaking into the sky with their contrails of smoke? Will we ask about essential details — the range or the payload of these weapons? All we are left with is a threat in visual form.

Of course, some of us do still ask about range and payload.

So do some reporters like Pamela Hess at AP.

But an independent national security blog,, Thursday analyzed video footage of the launch posted by the Iranian government. It determined the missiles were identical to a version of the Shahab missile first demonstrated in Iran in 1998 that has a known range of 746 miles.

In a post called “Same old Boring Shahab 3,” it compared the diameter of the missile to its length and found it to be identical to the 1998 version.

Unless the Iranians built a larger missile with the same length to width ratio, dramatically improved the thrust of the rocket or decreased its internal structural mass, the missile could not achieve the range Iran claimed it did. Otherwise, it is the same knockoff of North Korea’s Nodong-1, according to the blog.


  1. Yale Simkin (History)

    I think Errol Morris might be ascribing much too much subtlety to the Iranians.

    He seems to be saying that the doctoring was a deliberate ploy to increase psychological impact because the ruse would inevitably be discovered.

    It just seems to me that it was a clumsy attempt to cover a misfire – similar to when the Russian Navy fired a missile from behind a submarine that was malfuntioning during an exercise witnessed by Putin.

    If he is saying that the effects of the exposed photoshopping was a happy accident, well then.. maybe it was a net gain for the Iranians, but I think it makes them look like bunglers.

  2. ataune (History)

    The whole hoopla is based on AFP having found one image (who knows maybe they are the one that did the whole nosejob) in “Sepahnews” site (what is that an official site or what? nobody knows) which disapeared when AP (and not AFP) refered back to the same site. If I where you I would have been more cautious in interpreting the whole thing. Remember, the nuclear weapon test by North Korea never “passed the threshold” according to the US officials, but DPRK is out of Terror List now.

  3. Lao Tao Ren (History)


    That sounds pretty plausible to me.

    It may be difficult for ACW readers to believe, but the people in Iran that did it just might have figured out that they can get away with covering up a misfire.

    A Chinese saying goes something like “Person trips and falls and claim they are trying to pick up sand”.

    I suspect that was also the story with the Kitty Hawk Thanksgiving fiasco.

    Stupidity trumps cupidity more often than we think.

  4. FSB

    Sepha is the news outlet of the Iranian Rev. Guards — don’t know if their material gets vetted by the higher-ups, but I think it can be considered “official”.

    I agree with Yale’s take.

  5. A is the official media site of the Iranian revolutionary guards.

    I myself saw both versions of the photo a few days ago in their gallery, before they removed one.

  6. dan (History)

    The day that the Iranians did the tests, a variety of broadcasters in the UK – Sky, BBC, Channel 4 – all endlessly replayed the video from Iranian state TV that clearly showed the fourth rocket sitting on its launcher, while the other 3 sped skywards. I’m pretty sure that the same goes for a whole lot of other broadcasters in the rest of the world. Clearly, for the Iranian domestic audience, this wasn’t a problem at all – and I’m pretty sure that no Western broadcasters had their own film crews with special invites on the scene. For the rolling news outlets this was top-of-the-hour, every hour endlessly-replayed footage for the whole day.

    What’s completely mystifying is that, in spite of having watched the video which clearly shows the fourth rocket stuck on its launch pad, vast numbers of journalists, picture researchers and editors employed by the print media were simply unable to remember what they had seen on their TV monitors from a wide variety of broadcast outlets just an hour, two hours or three hours previously. I guess they really must be getting a hefty evening drinks allowance these days!

  7. Mark Konrad (History)

    I suspect the missiles the Iranians been firing for public consumption lately are old “shop-queens” that are past their expiration dates so to speak. The Iranians don’t care much how accurate those are or how well they perform technically as long as they launch and head out of sight. That’s all the public sees and it gets the point across. It’s logical they’d be more confident in their revised and later production run models and they’re saving those for the real thing if needed. I would guess they don’t want to waste their Cadillacs on mere PR displays when old, patched-up prototypes would serve the same purpose.

    In this case it looks like they couldn’t manage to light off one of the old mongrels they had around the garage. Some colonel or captain in that rocket battalion was on the receiving end of some very serious unhappiness after that missile didn’t fire I’m sure. The Iranians had no choice but to dummy up the hand out photos. Those PR pics would have been even more embarrassing with that dud sitting on the launcher while the others are well airborne in the same frame.

  8. Alex W. (History)

    I also think that Morris reads a bit too much intention into it. (Or at least implies that he is. Reading it over again I see that Morris is careful not to actually say that it was done purposefully. He only implies that it ended up serving a purpose.)

    I don’t know much about Iranian governmental culture and their internet savvy, but considering that the US government has been implicated in cheap photoshop jobs a few times indicates that even in countries with a full-time uncensored blogosphere, there are still some un-savvy folks in various positions who are not attune to how easy it is for most people under the age of 30 in this country to spot that sort of thing. Now, most people aren’t going to be suspicious enough to look for evidence of the clone tool, but it only takes one or two to make a news story.

    Even in our current techno-news driven country, one of our two primary presidential candidates does not even use a computer himself. Just because the world runs on computers these days doesn’t mean those running the world know much about them. (Dare I bring up “the tubes”?)

    I think one of the great errors that analysts (and historians) often fall prey too is ascribing too much rational intentionality to governments. It’s just too easy to come up with an idea of what the coherent plan was, and it fits so well into our metaphors about individuals being representations of the state. In practice I think things are a lot messier, much more ad hoc.

  9. Lemon (History)

    I agree with Yale, it was a clumsy attempt to cover a misfire.

  10. Markus Schiller (History)

    I wonder why everybody seems astonished that Iran makes poor attempts of deception by photoshopping their released images. This is neither their first use of photoshop, nor is it their worst. And I remember various other poor attempts of deception regarding their missile capabilities, for example Kavoshgar-1 or selling a Scud-B/Shahab 1 as a Shahab 3.

    No wonder they get a bit sloppy when most of their previous attempts were easily accepted by the international community.

  11. Pat Flannery (History)

    Retouched or not, the photo shows the launch of a solid, not liquid, fueled missile, as the thick cloud of smoke from the missile’s exhaust indicates.
    That takes both the Shahab 1 and 2 out of the running for what’s being launched, as both of those use hypergolic liquid fuel that doesn’t leave much of a smoke trail.
    There’s talk of a solid-fuel version of Shahab 3, but note the inclined launch angle of the missile…missile with ranges measured in hundreds of miles generally liftoff vertically to limit air drag on them as they climb out of the atmosphere. To me this looks like the launch of some sort of long range tactical artillery missile, like the Zelzal 2 or 3.
    The launcher looks similar to the one used for the Zelzal 3 also: