Without debating whether the Central Intelligence Agency has become a bastion of mush-brained liberalism, politicized to a fare-thee-well, it is instructive to consider a maxim of operational intelligence:

In the absence of knowledge of an enemy’s intent, one must plan based on his capability.

There are several points of concern about this maxim. Is Iran an enemy of the United States? Do we have knowledge, or absence thereof, of Iran’s intent? Do we have an understanding of Iran’s capabilities?

The ‘people’ of Iran not withstanding the hyperbole of its rulers, Mullahs and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seem to be decent people trapped in a overbearing, self-destructive and intolerant political system. The ongoing efforts of the reformists, the continuing saga of student political prisoners, and the jailed media representatives suggest that the ‘enemy’, if in fact it is an enemy, consists solely of the Mullahs, the government and its direct representatives [Iranian Revolutionary Guards]. Any people will, from time to time, express nationalistic pride, and one can hardly hold that against a population— the fact that Ahmadinejad stands up against the US and postures has some component of this. The fact that Ahmadinejad was directly responsible, in that he participated in the 1979 hostage situation at the American Embassy, is of more concern. As are his continual tirades against the US, comments advocating the extinction of Israel, and his participation in conferences with Hugo Chavez — participation which brings potential consequences of an alliance much closer to home. Given Ahmadinejad’s public stance, his history with the US, and the general antipathy of the Mullahs for western civilization, categorization of Iran’s ruling class as ‘enemies’ is certainly warranted. And since the ruling class is in control of its military, weapons program and a delivery means, caution is warranted.

Do we have knowledge of Iran’s intent? Iran has publically supported Hezbollah and delivered arms and ammunition to them in Gaza. Iran has publicly stated that the destruction of Israel is on the agenda. Hezbollah has initiated attacks, using Iranian provided weapons, including advanced missiles, on Israel displaying a general pattern of consistency: I say X, I do Y in support of X. This pattern is repeated in Iraq where advanced IED and self-forging projectile weapons were provided by the IRG for use against American troops. The pattern is repeated again with regard to the Persian Gulf and the capture of a British patrol boat.

Iran has repeatedly stated its intent to obtain nuclear weapons, has demonstrated before the IAEA the capability to produce weapons grade material, has increased its capacity to produce that same material, and has tested complex explosive devices and detonators whose only purpose can be to trigger a nuclear weapon. Again the consistent pattern: I say X, and I do Y in support of X.

Consequently, overt intent appears to be in place. Now consider the absence of intent. We have an bureacuracy of the United States, tasked with the collection and analysis of foreign intelligence stating that it appears that Iran has suspended (not given up) its weapons program in 2003 in the face of international pressure. If, in fact this is the case, why would Iran not make statements in an international venue designed to reduce pressure on the trade and financial restrictions already imposed. Further, given the decision was made in 2003, why maintain the hyperbole through the last several years? The CIA’s finding doesn’t state that the intent is not to obtain weapons — just to suspend the attempt to do so. The CIA’s finding in its NIE doesn’t establish absence of intent.

But even so, say that it did. The maxim states that in the absence of intent, use capability. What are Iran’s capabilities? Iran has already obtained fissionable materials. They have already obtained designs and working models of separation centrifuges. They have already designed and tested critical explosive components. The only thing that hasn’t been mentioned is any attempt to obtain tritium. [No modern weapons designer would forgo the yield improvements a boosted core would provide.] A quick Google search reveals an attempt to do just that with their ARAK heavy water facility.

Add to these specific components the general component of physics and engineering education. Iran has certainly produced its share of PhDs, some at American Universities. Iranian designers are clearly as capable as other national designers, especially augmented with information from Pakistan’s A. Q. Khan.

Finally, Iran as demonstrated the capability to deliver weapons with their 2000 km range Shahab-4 missiles. Delivery is most often neglected in the analysis of nuclear weapon systems overshadowed by the physics package of the bomb itself. Iran has tested a trans-stage bus design. This is the component that allows a (heavy) payload to be successfully launched. In short, Iran has the capability to design, manufacture, and deliver a nuclear weapon. The only thing missing is the weapons test, which would be a dead giveaway.

As such, given the maxim, the only prudent thing any administration can do is to assume based on the capability, and plan accordingly. Many political pundits and international optimists have fixated on the poorly written NIE and it’s assertion that Iran has stopped WMD fabrication and have pushed for policy to reflect that misguided belief. Our allies in the region are waiting to see how the administration will respond in policy statements (often in bewilderment as to how an administration could even allow such a document to be released). Our only reasonable reaction is to continue to assess Iran as the threat that it is. Deriding this administration, or any administration for that matter, for proceeding in accordance with a capability assessment, is policy suicide.