Timeline for an Iranian ICBM: Differing Assessments?

April 29, 2013 | 1:54 pm
Laura Grego
Research Director, Senior Scientist

Last week, the Pentagon released an unclassified summary of its  Annual Report on Military Power of Iran, dated January 13.  Inside Defense wrote a story on it, “DOD: Iran, With Foreign Help, Could Demonstrate ICBM By 2015. The story focuses on the report’s conclusion 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.

This conclusion is only slightly modified from the April 2012 Report, a year ago, which concluded

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

This change seems intended to clarify its assessment since technically the term “intercontinental ballistic missile” means one with a range of more than 5,500 km, while Iran would need a missile with range of over 10,000 km to reach population centers in the U.S.

The article made something of the apparent contradiction of the DOD report with a December 2012 assessment of Iran’s ballistic missile program by Steven Hildreth for the Congressional Research Service. Hildreth writes:

It is increasingly uncertain whether Iran will be able to achieve an ICBM capability by 2015 for several reasons. Iran does not appear to be receiving the degree of foreign support many believe would be necessary, Iran has found it increasingly difficult to acquire certain critical components and materials because of sanctions, and Iran has not demonstrated the kind of flight-test program many view as necessary to produce an ICBM.

Similarly, last July Michael Elleman at IISS speculated on the slow pace of ballistic missile development:

There is mounting evidence to suggest that, whereas the sanctions regime has not prevented Tehran from operating an increased number of centrifuges for uranium-enrichment activities or adding to its stockpile of fissile material, it has stymied efforts to develop and produce the long-range ballistic missiles capable of striking potential targets in western Europe and beyond.

Is this really a contradiction?  While the Pentagon’s approach to assessing  Iran’s ballistic missile program has changed over the years, the above Pentagon reports  estimate the shortest timeline for Iran to acquire an ICBM capability, under the best conditions—in this case, with “sufficient foreign assistance.” What that assistance might consist of is not provided in the unclassified summaries.  The CRS and IISS reports instead talk in specifics about what kind of foreign support Iran might actually be getting and how that might realistically affect its timeline.

To those accustomed to thinking in math terms, the Pentagon appears to be giving the “lower bound” of when Iran might achieve ICBM capability, not assessing the most likely value. That’s one useful piece of information, but not the whole picture.