Timing, they say, is everything. At the moment, no one knows that better than the EastWest Institute. On Tuesday, with much fanfare, the New York-based think tank released what it billed as the “first-ever U.S.-Russian joint threat assessment” on Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities. The report is a study in threat minimization, with every possible technological impediment to Iran’s emergence as a nuclear power highlighted and stressed. Of particular note, however, is its take on Iran’s burgeoning ballistic missile arsenal. Despite official pronouncements from Tehran on the subject, the report concludes, there is currently no evidence that Iran has a ballistic missile with a range of 2,000 kilometers. So imagine the Institute’s surprise and chagrin when, less than twenty-four hours later, the Islamic Republic successfully tested just such a capability: the 2,000 kilometer range solid fuel Sajjil-2, capable of striking southeastern Europe and U.S. bases throughout the Middle East.
All of this bears more than a passing resemblance to what happened a decade ago, when the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States, better known as the Rumsfeld Commission, issued a similar warning. The Commission’s report, released publicly on July 15, 1998, warned in part that the threat posed by the “emerging capabilities” of aspiring weapons states like North Korea and Iran, as well as strategic competitors like Russia and China, “is broader, more mature and evolving more rapidly than has been reported in estimates and reports by the Intelligence Community.” That assessment was roundly ridiculed by a confident CIA – that is, until North Korea suddenly launched its Taepo-Dong intercontinental ballistic missile over Japan some four weeks later, surprising U.S. policymakers and the sages in the intelligence community alike.
The enduring lesson from that incident, and from the EastWest Institute’s embarrassment this week, is that “strategic surprise” – what the preeminent strategist Colin Gray terms “the possibility of achieving decisive results from attacks launched on short, or zero, warning” – has a way of upsetting the best-laid predictions, and that our adversaries are investing heavily in precisely those types of technologies. It is also a timely reminder that, when it comes to thinking about such threats, assuming that our enemies have more (rather than less) sophistication is the only way that one can be surprised pleasantly.