Clapper’s warning about Iran was delivered as part of the U.S. intelligence community’s annual overview of the nation’s most serious national security concerns. As the hearing got underway, Clapper signaled that the United States is seeking to avoid a violent confrontation with Iran, instead pushing for more and more sanctions while also monitoring the possibility of a preemptive strike by Israel.
“Our hope is that the sanctions … would have the effect of inducing a change in Iranian policy toward their apparent pursuit of a nuclear capability,” Clapper said. “Obviously this is a very sensitive issue right now. We’re doing a lot with the Israelis.”
Clapper’s testimony also calls attention to a heightened concern over cyber-related threats, as well as the diminished but persistent danger to the United States posed by al-Qaeda.
This year’s assessment is the first to evaluate al-Qaeda’s capabilities since Osama bin Laden was killed in a U.S. commando raid in May. That blow, combined with the toll taken by subsequent strikes and raids, has destroyed al-Qaeda’s core.
As a result, Clapper said in the testimony, the United States is entering a “critical transitional phase for the terrorist threat,” in which smaller-bore strikes from regional nodes are more likely than elaborate, mass-casualty plots.
If the pressure on al-Qaeda can be maintained, “there is a better-than-even chance that decentralization will lead to fragmentation,” Clapper said. The terrorist group “will seek to execute smaller, simpler plots to demonstrate relevance to the global jihad.”
The group’s affiliate in Yemen continues to be seen as the most likely source of plots targeting the United States. But the death of U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in a CIA drone strike in Yemen last year has at least temporarily eroded the affiliate’s ability to mount international attacks.
U.S. officials said the plot was devised by an Iranian American with ties to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. But the plan was foiled when the Iranian American mistakenly hired a paid informant of the Drug Enforcement Administration to carry it out. Iranian officials have denied any role in the plot.
At the time, Obama administration officials said they were unclear on “how high up” in the Iranian leadership approval of the alleged plan extended. Clapper’s reference to Khamenei marks the first time that U.S. officials have mentioned Iran’s supreme leader in connection with the plot, signaling new belief that the alleged willingness to authorize such attacks comes directly from the top.
The view of U.S. intelligence agencies on Iran’s nuclear intentions has not shifted since last year. Clapper said that Iran still appears to be “keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons,” but that “we do not know” what the republic will decide.
Iran has blamed the United States and Israel for a series of mysterious developments, including the apparently targeted killing of yet another Iranian nuclear scientist in Tehran on Jan. 11, as well as a crippling cyberattack on the country’s largest uranium enrichment facility.
In his State of the Union address last week, President Obama raised the threat of military intervention to halt Iran’s alleged pursuit of an atomic bomb, saying he would “take no options off the table to achieve that goal.”
But the administration insists that it has refrained from violent measures so far. Earlier this month, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton denied “any United States involvement in any kind of act of violence inside Iran.”