The recently released National Intelligence Estimate, "Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities," reverses the American intelligence community’s assessment of the Iranian nuclear program. The key judgments state that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and likely had not restarted it by mid-2007.
Within a week of the NIE release, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was invited to Tel Aviv to meet with senior Israeli military intelligence officials to hear their contradictory assessment of the Iranian nuclear program. In Israel, the military intelligence service, Aman, is the senior intelligence entity, it is responsible for intelligence estimates. In the United States, estimates are the responsibility of the community-wide National Intelligence Council.
The Israeli perspective
Israel views Iran differently than we do. To Israelis, Iran represents the “existential” threat to the Jewish state. While other countries present threats, only Iran is perceived to be pursuing capabilities that could destroy Israel. Iran is intent on developing nuclear weapons to complement its existing ballistic missile capabilities. When Iran has acquired the ability to strike Israel with a nuclear warhead, it will. Israeli analysts posit that three well-placed nuclear weapons in the area from Haifa to Tel Aviv, home to about half the world’s Jews, could deliver an unrecoverable blow that would effectively destroy the country.
Iran has topped Israel’s threat list for some time. No wonder when you look at Iranian involvement in Israel’s back yard. To the north, Lebanon is home to probably the world’s most effective irregular army, Hezbollah. Hezbollah is almost completely funded, equipped and trained by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Qods Force, the same group that funds, trains and equips the Shia militias that are killing American troops in Iraq. Most of the rockets that landed in northern Israel during the Israel-Hezbollah war in 2006 were made in Iran and funneled into Lebanon via Syria.
To the northeast, Syria is probably Iran’s closest ally. They have had a defense cooperation agreement going back over two decades. Damascus is the gateway for Iranian support to Hezbollah, as well as home to several Palestinian groups opposed to any peace agreement with Israel. Syria and Iran also operate joint intelligence sites intercepting Israeli communications. To the south and east, Israel is faced with terrorism at the hands of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. As with Hezbollah, both Palestinian groups are funded, equipped and trained by Iran.
Israel believes that Iran has had an ongoing nuclear weapons development program, one that did not stop in 2007. In fact, Israeli intelligence analysts believe Iran could develop a weapon by 2010. Given the estimate just been released by the U.S. intelligence community, there is almost no chance there will be any American military action against the Iranian nuclear program. To Israel, that means what they believe to be a world problem will no longer have a world solution. It now falls on their shoulders to solve the Iranian problem.
While the recent NIE probably eliminated the possibility of American military action against Iran, it may have actually increased the likelihood of an Israeli attack.