Jeffrey LewisIran Mil Power Report

In April 2012, the Defense Department released another edition of the (purportedly) annual Report to Congress on the Military Power of Iran.

As in 2010, I am struck by the arbitrariness of headline that has emerged.  This year it is: “Iran’s Ballistic Missiles Improving.”

So, that’s what the report says and it happens to be true.  But it isn’t news, compared to some of the other statements in the report.  In particular, the report contains the most direct official confirmation that Iran has sold ballistic missiles to Hezbollah. In my opinion, this ought to be the lede:

In close cooperation with Syria, Iran has provided Lebanese Hizballah with increasingly sophisticated weapons, including a wide array of missiles and rockets that allow Hizballah to launch weapons from deeper in Lebanon or to strike Israel.

I haven’t seen such a clear a statement in an official document.  US officials have been willing to say that Iran transferred missiles to Syria, but have been much more careful to avoid confirming the transfer to a non-state actor like Hezbollah. That is, in part, because some Israeli officials have described the transfer of ballistic missiles to Hezbollah as the sort of thing that would earn a body an airstrike.

Perhaps the word “missiles” in the phrase “missiles and rockets” means something other than Scuds and Fateh-110s. If so, I’d be interested to hear what that might be.

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that the 2012 edition, obtained by Steven Aftergood,  is slimmer than the 2010 report, which I published here on Arms Control Wonk.  (I have no idea if DOD issued a 2011 report.)

As a result, the most interesting developments — like the sale of ballistic missiles to Hezbollah and growing armaments cooperation with Venezuela — are mentioned, but only in passing.  (In the case of Venezuela, the report merely refers to efforts to expand “security ties” with countries “outside the Middle East.”) If you don’t know to look, you might miss the references entirely.

In 2010, much of the press attention focused on the sentence about Iranian ICBMs.  I was amused at the time, since that particular sentence was boilerplate that had been around for a few years.  In 2012, the sentence actually is different, but no one seems to have noticed!

2010: “With sufficient foreign assistance, Iran could probably develop and test an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching the United States by 2015.”

2012:  “With sufficient foreign assistance, Iran may be technically capable of flight-testing an intercontinental ballistic missile by 2015.”

I was just at dinner with a former intelligence analyst who was giving me a hard time about my tendency to scrutinize these statements.  His point was that unclassified summaries are often delegated to relatively junior intelligence professionals who may vary the language from one year to the next simply to avoid the tedium of repeating boilerplate.

This seems to be a good example of that very point.

I suspect the new sentence is almost entirely a function of the decision to replace the word could — a word with a specific, if tedious, meaning in estimative language — with the word may.

In English, one uses may to indicate uncertainty about the truth of a statement.  The Oxford Dictionaries people give the example of “I may go home early if I’m tired.”  The word may, in this instance, would appear to mean the same thing as the word could, which means the “earliest date that countries could test various missiles, based largely on engineering judgments” and other factors.

Put simply, the phrase “may be technically-capable” is another  (and arguably more clear) expression of the notion of “could” as worst-case technical judgement.  That means the estimate hasn’t changed, even if we are two years closer to the date in question.

Updates | 14:48 PST Two things.

First, Greg Thielmann summarizes the report for Arms Control Now.  Greg concludes that the new language on ICBMs represents the IC “ratcheting the odds downward a notch.”  I still think its just a happy-to-glad change, but Greg is usually right about stuff like this.

Second, a colleague points to this statement suggesting that the 2012 Iran report is slimmer than the 2010 version because Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has ordered the Defense Department to keep reports to Congress under 10 pages, except when “statutory requirements or specific circumstances dictate” otherwise:

07/11/2012 05:01 PM CDT


No. 578-12 July 11, 2012

Statement by George Little on Length of Congressional Reports

Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs George Little provided the following statement:

“Secretary Panetta has made clear that a close partnership between the department of Defense and Congress is essential for our national security.  For that reason, the Department takes very seriously its responsibility to provide Congress with thorough, accurate and timely briefings and reports on the full range of matters.

“Across the department, we continually strive to provide Congress with the information and analysis it needs to fulfill its vital oversight role, and to do so in the most readable and usable format possible.  We also seek to do so in a cost effective manner.

“The department prepares and sends to Congress over 500 reports annually. Last summer, one component within the department issued written guidance on report length. That guidance indicated reports should not exceed ten pages in length, except when the statutory requirements or specific circumstances dictate. The guidance did not in any way seek to restrict information provided to Congress.”

Sure enough, the unclassified 201o report was 12 pages long.  The unclassified 2012 report is a mere 4.

Late Update | 16:01 PST The length constraint is apparently an issue now, with Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-CA) hopping mad about the policy, particularly its impact on the China Military Power report.


  1. Mark Pyruz (History)

    Some observers speculate that if Iran were to develop a LRBM, its retaliatory “second strike” capability would likely target the U.S. military air base facilities at Diego Garcia.

  2. Greg Thielmann (History)

    I appreciate Jeffrey’s generous reference to my ability to decrypt government intelligence assessment language. I acknowledge the possibility that the change in the ICBM language between the latest and earlier reports might simply be “happy to glad.” But to my eyes, using “may be technically capable of…” implies an unstated parenthetical follow-on: “…but we don’t think it will happen in the real world.”

    I’m also intrigued that the report omits from the main text of the report the dependent clause, which appears in the executive summary, “with sufficient foreign assistance.” Normally, I would expect the executive summary to shave off detail appearing in the main body, not the other way around. In any case, I’ve always regarded this qualifier as misleading if not completely useless, because “with sufficient foreign assistance,” almost any country can build an ICBM.

    As for the opinion of Jeffrey’s “former intelligence analyst” dinner companion that these public statements should not be scrutinized, I emphatically disagree. First of all, they sometimes provide the only authoritative information available to the public on the yield from the taxpayers’ multi-billion dollar investment in intelligence. Secondly, as we learned in the case of the Iraq WMD fiasco, most members of Congress who have the constitutional responsibility to declare war, base their views on what they read in the press, on unclassified (sanitized) statements from the government that they can conveniently read, or the briefings prepared by their personal staffs, who do not have access to the Top Secret Code Word versions of the assessments.

  3. Steve hynd (History)

    The phrase “missiles and rockets” could well refer to guided weapons rather than unguided ones – anti-tank or anti-aircraft missiles such as were used by Hezboullah against invading Israeli forces in 2006 – but I agree with Jeffrey that Congresscritters and journalists should be seeking clarification of this statement.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      I think the reporter might have reasonably asked a defense source if “missiles” mean, you know, _missiles_. That is my inference from the way “missiles and rockets” was used in the 2010 report, but of course it is only an inference.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      By the way — and perhaps you did not mean it this way — but the phrase “significant chunk of flesh for Israeli hawks” in your post is certain to evoke Shakespeare’s depiction of Shylock, the Jewish money-lender, in “The Merchant of Venice” for any educated reader. (It is Shylock, drawing on anti-semitic stereotypes, who insists on a “pound of flesh.”) A lot of people, myself included, find Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock difficult. (I love the Bard, but I am not crazy about a lot of the embedded social views of the 16th century. It is difficult, centuries later, to know when Shakespeare is playing to a crowd’s prejudices or undermining them.)

      I am certainly not making any judgement about your intent, not least because there is a robust debate about how Shakespeare intended Shylock to read, but I would be remiss if I did not mention that the phrase itself does cause me some discomfort, is almost certain to be interpreted by anti-semites as a friendly gesture, and distracts from your reasonable observation that Congress should seek clarification as to whether Iran has transferred missiles to Hezbollah.

      At the very least, I am certainly unhappy about having my own words paraphrased in this way.


      I put up a slightly edited version of this comment on your blog post. Please change the paraphrase to something else.

  4. Steve Hynd (History)

    Jeffrey, I’ve edited my post to correct my clumsy use of extended metaphor. No offense was intended.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Many thanks. I imagined it was just a an artifact of the “red meat” metaphor.

  5. Syntax (History)

    Yes one must be careful not to be politically incorrect mustn`t one,good grief,come on folks this was supposed to be a site about arms control not pc bullsh*t whats next shrieks of “antisemite” or “holocaust denier”

    • Jeffrey (History)

      A few observations.

      1. No one called Steve an “anti-semite” or a “holocaust denier.” I took special care to note that my concern was about how the word choice would be interpreted, not Steve’s intent in writing it. I asked him to change the paraphrase and he did. I am not upset. He’s not upset. No one is picketing Steve’s house or leaving nasty comments on his blog. In fact, you are actually the only person who seems upset by this entire process. That’s strange because you aren’t actually involved in this in any way, shape or form.

      2. “Political correctness” implies that one is imposing some arbitrary and impossibly difficult standard on our discourse. Avoiding bigoted statements is actually the minimum standard for civil discourse. I pointed out the downside of Steve’s extended “red meat” metaphor and he picked a different set of words. Again, you are the only person who seems to feel like replacing a poor choice of words with a better one was onerous.

      3. Readers should be aware that anytime I post on the subject of Israel or Iran, various anti-semites of one sort or another magically appear in the comments. Readers don’t encounter them based on a very tough policy regarding the comments. But you can get a flavor of what I mean from my appearance on C-Span a few years back, when I was asked about the comments of a Chinese General named Zhu (pronouced /joo/). At 2:33:25, a caller suggested that he wanted to talk about “General /joo/ … as in J-E-W” and things went downhill from there. I didn’t ask Steve to change the wording out of an abundance of caution; rather I asked him to change it based on my very real experience with a particularly virulent group of people who continuously assault the community that we’ve managed to create on the blog.

      4. I considered emailing Steve privately, but given my observation about the prevalence of anti-semitism in so many discussions surrounding Iran’s nuclear weapons program, I felt like it was an appropriate conversation to have in public — particularly, since no one was accusing anyone else of malign intent.