(Updates with comments from Feinstein on Afghanistan in final paragraph.)
Jan. 31 (Bloomberg) -- Iran is stepping up its support for international terrorism and its intelligence operations against the U.S., the Director of National Intelligence told Congress.
“The 2011 plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States shows that some Iranian officials -- probably including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei -- have changed their calculus and are now more willing to conduct an attack in the United States in response to real or perceived actions that threaten the regime,” James Clapper said in a statement today to the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Iran’s willingness to sponsor attacks against the U.S. at home or abroad “probably will be shaped by Tehran’s evaluation of the costs it bears for the plot against the ambassador as well as Iranian leaders’ perceptions of U.S. threats against the regime,” he said in an opening statement to the committee’s annual threat-assessment hearing.
While the core leadership of al-Qaeda in Pakistan has been decimated, a more fragmented international jihadist movement remains dangerous, the U.S. intelligence director said. The group’s regional affiliates in Yemen, North Africa and Somalia, Clapper said, will pose a greater threat to U.S. interests than will “the remnants of core al-Qaeda in Pakistan.”
Cyber Threats ‘Critical’
Dangers posed by cyber espionage were also highlighted by Clapper. “Cyber threats pose a critical national and economic security concern due to the continued advances in -- and growing dependency on -- the information technology (IT) that underpins nearly all aspects of modern society,” he said.
Neither government nor business “has been successful at fully implementing existing best practices,” he said.
Clapper told the Senate panel during his testimony that he anticipated a situation “in which emerging technologies are developed and implemented before security responses can be put in place.”
Robert Mueller, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, told the committee he predicts cybersecurity eventually will become the No. 1 threat against the U.S.
Chinese and Russian cyber spying “are of particular concern,” and Iran’s intelligence operations, “including cyber capabilities, have dramatically increased in recent years, in depth and complexity,” according to Clapper in his statement.
Non-state actors such as the hacker groups Anonymous and Lulz Security (LulzSec) “are also playing an increasing role in international and domestic politics through the use of social media technologies,” he said.
Iran’s Nuclear Capability
Familiar threats also persist. Iran has the technical, industrial and scientific capability to produce a nuclear weapon eventually, making “the central issue its political will to do so,” Clapper said in the statement.
“They are certainly moving on that path, but we don’t believe they’ve actually made the decision to go ahead with a nuclear weapon,” he told the committee.
Iranian advancements, particularly in enriching uranium to weapons-grade levels, reinforce the intelligence community’s prevailing view that Tehran is “technically capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon if it so chooses,” he said.
“We assess that Iran is keeping its options open to develop nuclear weapons, in part by developing various nuclear capabilities that better position it to produce such weapons, should it choose to do so,” Clapper said, in wording similar to last year’s testimony assessing global threats to the U.S.
“We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons,” Clapper said. If Iran did so, intelligence agencies believe Tehran would be likely to choose a ballistic missile for its “preferred” delivery, he said.
Strait of Hormuz
The U.S. and European Union are imposing new sanctions to pressure Iran into abandoning any effort to develop nuclear weapons. The 27-nation EU agreed Jan. 23 to bar the purchase transport, financing and insurance of Iranian oil exports.
Iranian officials threatened in December and again after the EU action to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which about 20 percent of the world’s daily oil is shipped.
“According to most timelines I’ve heard, 2012 will be a critical year” in averting Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon, Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who heads the Intelligence Committee, said.
Iran’s Ballistic Missiles
Iran is “expanding the scale, reach and sophistication of its ballistic missile forces, many of which are inherently capable of carrying a nuclear payload,” Clapper said, in testimony that represents the intelligence community’s latest collective assessment of Iran’s nuclear intentions.
Combined U.S. and and European sanctions will “weigh down” the Iranian economy, yet these difficulties “probably will not jeopardize the regime, absent a sudden and sustained fall in oil prices or a sudden domestic crisis that disrupts oil prices,” Clapper said.
Iran’s biggest regional concern is Syria, not the U.S., “because regime change would be a major strategic loss for Iran,” he said.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban-led insurgency “has lost ground in some areas,” Clapper said. Feinstein said she was concerned about a “disparity” between Clapper’s assessment today and a more “dire” classified intelligence report.
“Frankly, I don’t see a viable strategy for continuing the level of security and stability that we are building after 2014,” when the U.S. intends to complete a transition to full Afghan security control, Feinstein said.
--With assistance from Viola Gienger and John Walcott in Washington. Editors: John Walcott, Larry Liebert
To contact the reporters on this story: Tony Capaccio in Washington at email@example.com; David Lerman in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at email@example.com