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

IMMEDIATE RELEASE

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.