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Pentagon keeps wary eye on Iran activities around Strait of Hormuz

This image provided by the U.S. Navy shows a small vessel transiting in front of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush as it transits the Strait of Hormuz April 28, 2014 as seen from the guided-missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea.

WASHINGTON — While Iran's military has toned down its rhetoric about military capabilities and exercises, it continues a low-profile buildup of weapons in and near the Strait of Hormuz, according to a classified Pentagon assessment.

"Iran's military strategy is defensive" and designed to "deter an attack, survive an initial strike, retaliate against an aggressor and force a diplomatic solution" while avoiding major concessions, says the unclassified executive summary of a congressionally mandated Pentagon report submitted to lawmakers on July 7.

Since the August 2013 election of President Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian government "has adjusted some of its tactics" to achieve core objectives such as preserving the rule of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, according to the summary, which was obtained by Bloomberg News.

"Of note, Tehran's strategic messaging about its military capabilities through the mass media has been less strident since Rouhani took over," it said. "Widespread publicity of major military exercises, previously the norm, has been minimal" in state-run media such as the Mehr and Islamic Republic news agencies.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel wrote in his cover letter transmitting the classified report that it contains analysis of Iran's conventional, unconventional and nuclear weapons capabilities "and intelligence gaps the Department currently has" with Iran.

The deadline for negotiations between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — China, France, Russia, Britain and the United States — plus Germany over curtailing its disputed nuclear program in exchange for relaxing economic sanctions has been extended to Nov. 24.

Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East analyst for the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, said in an e-mail that the Pentagon's previous Iran reports "have been consistently suspicious and assuming the worst in Iran's intentions and capabilities."

"This assessment is more nuanced, giving Iran some credit for adjusting its approach so as to minimize international suspicions," he said.

Katzman said he was struck by the Pentagon's characterization of Iran's military doctrine as defensive.

"I have never seen DoD or any U.S. agency come down so sharply on" whether Iran is "defensive or aggressive."

"This definitely has a much different and more benign tone that the preceding reports did," Katzman said.

Even so, the new assessment says, "Tehran is quietly fielding" increasing numbers of anti-ship ballistic missiles, "small but capable submarines," coastal missile batteries and attack craft.

Iranian officials periodically have threatened to disrupt the Strait of Hormuz in response to U.S.-led economic sanctions on its nuclear program and Israel's threat to launch a strike against it.

About 20 percent of the world's traded oil is shipped daily through the Strait, which is 21 miles wide at its narrowest point.

Separately, Iran possesses "a substantial inventory of missiles capable of reaching targets throughout the region, including Israel."

In addition, the summary says: "Iran's covert activities appear to be continuing unabated in countries such as Syria and Iraq. Despite Iran's public denials, for example, other information suggests Iran is increasingly involved, along with Lebanese Hizballah, in the Syria conflict."

"The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC- QF) remains a key tool of Iran's foreign policy and power projection, in Syria and beyond," it continues. "IRGC-QF has continued efforts to improve its access within foreign countries and its ability to conduct terrorist attacks."

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