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The NIE – Capabilities vs. Intent

There is little disagreement between Israeli and American intelligence officials about Iran’s overt and covert nuclear-related programs, including the limitations of our knowledge. There is enormous difference in the processing of that information to result in policy. Israel considers only an adversary’s capabilities; the United States factors in what it believes about an adversary’s intent. This perhaps reflects the much smaller margin of error Israel faces.


There is little disagreement between Israeli and American intelligence officials about Iran’s overt and covert nuclear-related programs, including the limitations of our knowledge. There is enormous difference in the processing of that information to result in policy. Israel considers only an adversary’s capabilities; the United States factors in what it believes about an adversary’s intent. This perhaps reflects the much smaller margin of error Israel faces.

The National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) was based on five questions: the first about Iran’s “intentions toward developing nuclear weapons,” then two on internal and external factors that might affect Iranian decision-making and a “range of potential Iranian actions concerning the development of nuclear weapons.” Only one concerns “current and projected capability.” Moreover, the NIE “does not* assume that Iran intends to acquire nuclear weapons. Rather … to assess Iran’s capability and intent (or lack thereof) to acquire nuclear weapons.”

The NIE, by the way, “does not assume** that the strategic goals and basic structure of Iran’s senior leadership and government will remain similar to those that have endured since the death of Khomeini in 1989 … acknowledge the potential for change … unable** to confidently predict such changes or their implications.”

So, Iran’s stated goals of eliminating Israel, spreading Shi’ite Islam and restoring the Caliphate may change and the mullahs may be replaced, but our guys won’t confidently predict when or how, by whom or what it might mean. What an odd time for them to lose confidence in their crystal ball.

We want to know what they have, what they do and how that threatens the United States and American interests and allies abroad.

The Iranian government has been working on the acquisition of nuclear technology, including weapons-related technology, from the start of the Revolution. Iran has missile technology including, according to U.S. intelligence, a new solid-fuel rocket with a range of 1,250-1,500 miles. Such a rocket has the potential to carry a nuclear warhead. Iran has shared missiles and missile technology with Syria and Hezbollah. Iran has actively engaged in the targeting and killing of American soldiers in Iraq. Iran has financed, trained and supported Hezbollah and Hamas terrorists as well as Shi’ite insurrection in the Gulf. Iran has targeted, imprisoned and killed regime opponents at home.

Under the circumstances, we’ll stick with capabilities, thank you, and leave the head shrinking of the mullahs to someone else. We’ll stick with what we know and even what we think we don’t know about overt, covert and dual-use capabilities, thank you, and leave the results of an unpredicted and unpredictable Iranian revolution to someone else. We think the U.S. intelligence community would serve us better if it did that as well.
*Emphasis in the original. ** Emphasis added

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