Pentagon Changes Its Assessment of Iran’s ICBM Prospects

July 11, 2014 | 9:07 am
Laura Grego
Research Director, Senior Scientist

Inside Defense reports that the Pentagon’s assessment of the Iranian intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) threat has changed substantially for the first time since 1999. The new assessment appears in the unclassified executive summary of the Pentagon’s January 2014 Annual Report on Military Power of Iran.

A year ago, the 2013 report gave the Pentagon’s assessment that:

“With sufficient foreign assistance, Iran may be technically capable of flight-testing an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States by 2015.”

However, Inside Defense quotes the 2014 executive summary as saying instead that:

“Iran has publicly stated it may launch a space launch vehicle by 2015 that could be capable of intercontinental ballistic missile ranges if configured as a ballistic missile.”

Importantly, the 2014 statement does not speculate as to what Iran’s technical capability is, whether ballistic missile or the related technology, space launch. It only reports on Iran’s public statements about its space program intentions. This is really quite different from previous assessments.

But not so surprising. Analysts have taken issue with the idea that Iran may get sufficient foreign assistance. And the prospect that Iran could test-launch an ICBM by 2015 even with significant assistance has been fast receding, as it gets closer to that date with little demonstrated progress.

A couple of things to note:

First, Iran has made many public statements about its space ambitions, though its actual pace of progress has lagged these plans significantly. Iran’s last acknowledged launch was a suborbital launch in December 2013. The last successful launch to put a satellite in orbit was in February 2012, though some reports suggest that there may have been a couple of subsequent failed attempts. The satellite launches have used variants of the Safir launcher, a liquid-fueled rocket. The much larger, long-awaited liquid-fueled Simorgh rocket—expected to be similar in size to North Korea’s Unha launcher—still has not made an appearance.

Moreover, Iran’s progress in building a solid-fueled missile has been slower. Solid-fueled missiles are superior operationally for use as ICBMs, but if the development timelines of comparable efforts to develop solid-fueled missiles are at all analogous, Iran would be working on this for many years, probably decades, before it could produce a solid-fueled ICBM, once it had decided to do so.

Second, Iran has said explicitly that it does not intend to develop an ICBM. While it is useful to retain skepticism, there is precedent that a country could develop space launch capability but decide not to pursue an ICBM. Japan, South Korea, and Ukraine are space faring but without ICBM programs.