In his testimony in a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing last week entitled “Current and Projected National Security Threats to the United States,” Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. updated Congress on the status of Iran’s nuclear program, and its relevance for U.S. national security.
While Clapper’s statement that it is possible that perceived threats from the United States could encourage Iranian terrorists to seek targets on American soil grabbed most of the headlines, his testimony is an important counter to the alarmist reaction about Iran’s capabilities and intentions that has been permeating the country over the last few weeks.
In his prepared statement, Clapper acknowledged that while “Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons, […] we do not know […] if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.”
Clapper did not disguise the fact that Iran appears to be developing the technical capability to produce nuclear weapons. He claims that “Iran’s technical advancement, particularly in uranium enrichment, strengthens our assessment that Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons, making the central issue its political will to do so.”
This is a critical distinction. Clapper went on to add that an Iranian decision to pursue nuclear weapons is not inevitable.
When asked by Senator Wyden (D-OR) if he agreed with the assessment that Iran would be willing to abandon its pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability only in the event that said pursuit threatened the regime’s political security within the country, Director Clapper repeated an assessment that also appears in his prepared testimony:
We judge Iran’s decisionmaking is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence Tehran. Iranian leaders undoubtedly consider Iran’s security, prestige, and influence, as well as the international political and security environment, when making decisions about its nuclear program.
This means that if the international community creates conditions under which a nuclear weapons program would bring greater harm to the Iranian regime than it would security, it is possible that its own cost-benefit analysis will lead Iran to abandon that program. Clapper pointed to the sanctions that have already been implemented, saying he was hopeful that they would reduce Iran’s apparent pursuit of a nuclear capability.
The fundamental goal in solving the Iran dilemma must be to make a compelling case for the Iranian government to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons capability. This is most likely to work through a combination of targeted economic sanctions and aggressive diplomacy. In fact, the military leadership of the United States agrees that a military strike on Iran would be the worst option to pursue, and recommend exhausting all other options before even considering a strike.
Perhaps the most surprising component of Clapper’s assessment was the claim 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 U.S. actions that threaten the regime.” However, while this may seem alarming, it also makes clear that it is up to the United States to assume a firm, but flexible position with Iran. Given that Iran most fears regime change, overt military threats from the United States (and especially Israel) do little to make the regime feel secure enough to engage diplomatically with the U.S.
In the days since the hearing, President Obama has downplayed Clapper’s assessment of Iranian capabilities, saying “We don’t see any evidence that they have those intentions or capabilities right now.”
To see the full hearing, including Clapper’s brief oral remarks and the questions from the Senators for the witnesses, you can follow this link