Iran Intelligence Expert Discusses Current U.S.-Iran Situation NPR's Mary Louise Kelly speaks with Heather Williams, an Iran intelligence expert at the Rand Corporation, for context on the current situation between the U.S. and Iran.
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Iran Intelligence Expert Discusses Current U.S.-Iran Situation

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Iran Intelligence Expert Discusses Current U.S.-Iran Situation

Iran Intelligence Expert Discusses Current U.S.-Iran Situation

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

How serious is the threat from Iran, and what capabilities does Iran have that make it dangerous to the U.S. and our allies? Members of the Trump administration were on Capitol Hill yesterday providing lawmakers with their answers to those questions based on intelligence that remains largely classified.

We're going to put those questions next to Heather Williams. She served as a U.S. intelligence analyst for more than a dozen years under both Republican and Democratic administrations. Heather Williams, Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

HEATHER WILLIAMS: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: So in your view - if you can just describe in a few sentences, answer the question I posed at the top. How serious is the threat from Iran?

WILLIAMS: I think it is a serious threat. I don't see strong evidence that it has increased as of late. Iran has the ability to act via proxy organizations towards United States troops, diplomats, other assets that might be in the region. It also has the mechanisms to act against our partners and against our allies either directly or through the proxy organizations that it has a relationship with.

KELLY: And paint me a little bit of a picture of what that map looks like when you describe Iran's proxy organizations in the Middle East.

WILLIAMS: So Iran's strongest relationship is with Lebanese Hezbollah. That allows them to have a measure of influence both to act in Lebanon, to act towards Israel from Lebanon but increasingly to act in other countries where Iran has essentially deployed Lebanese Hezbollah troops to, including Syria.

It has also been improving its relationship with Houthi rebels in Yemen, though its ability to direct or control the Houthis is still very limited. And it has long-established relationships with Iraqi militias.

KELLY: Does Iran have control over its proxies?

WILLIAMS: I would say that control is a strong word. It has influence, and it can maybe put some parameters in what these groups do. It can discourage them from doing certain actions, and then it could kind of loosen those constraints and unleash those proxy organizations. But that doesn't mean that it can put them back in the box after it does so. And they don't always operate in the way that Iran anticipates.

KELLY: Some people look at the current situation - the heated rhetoric we've been talking about, moving military assets to the Gulf - and they hear echoes of the run-up to war in Iraq. Do you?

WILLIAMS: I certainly hope that's not the path that we're on. I think it is important considering that there are individuals in this administration who were part of the policy decisions made then. The right intelligence questions weren't asked of the intelligence community, and intelligence was presented out of context very often. And so I think it's very careful just for the credibility of the United States and the credibility of the intelligence community that we aren't seen as doing that again.

KELLY: Were you serving in the intelligence community then in 2001, 2002, 2003?

WILLIAMS: I came in on the tail end.

KELLY: I mean, this is personal for you, I guess. What kind of confidence do you have that the Iran intelligence is better than the Iraq intelligence was 15, 16 years ago?

WILLIAMS: Yes, this is certainly personal for me also as a member of the National Intelligence Council, which has taken great efforts since the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq WMD to ensure that we would not commit errors in the future. When you're inside the intelligence community, people are very concerned about, you know, being the boy who cried wolf. You only have so many times that you can ring the alarm bells and actually say the threat is increasing. I always am concerned that maybe - that we wouldn't want to use those tools prematurely.

KELLY: And do you see that as a possible danger at this time?

WILLIAMS: I don't know. It seems to be changing day by day what the intentions of the administration are. It seems like we're on a de-escalation path perhaps on just the last few days, but that seems like it could easily change in the future.

KELLY: Heather Williams - she was national intelligence officer for Iran under the director of national intelligence. She is now at the RAND Corporation. Heather Williams, thank you.

WILLIAMS: Thank you.

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