By Suzanne Kelly
Iran poses a laundry list of threats to U.S. national security, according to top officials in the intelligence community.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday that Iran poses a threat on a number of fronts, including its ability to develop a nuclear weapon, and the fact that any nuclear attack would likely be delivered by a ballistic missile.
"Iran already has the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East, and it is expanding the scale, reach, and sophistication of its ballistic missile force, many of which are inherently capable of carrying a nuclear payload," Clapper said during his opening remarks to the committee.
The question for the intelligence community remains whether Iran, in particular Supreme Leader Sayyed Ali Khamenei, either already has decided or will decide to pull the trigger when it comes to taking the country's nuclear knowledge and applying it to the actual development of a nuclear weapon.
"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," Clapper said.
There are a number of indicators that the intelligence community is looking for that Clapper refused to detail during the public hearing that would indicate that the decision has already been made, and Clapper added that there is no indication yet that the decision has been made.
But Iran is not giving up the potential either. Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said Iran is also "not close to agreeing" to abandon its nuclear program.
Under questioning by Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-New Hampshire, Clapper and Burgess verified that Iran remains a significant threat on a number of fronts, including its continued support of organizations such as Hezbollah, which is deemed a terrorist organization by the United States, as well as its indirect support of Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Burgess added that Iranian weapons have been found in Afghanistan, and that Tehran is attempting a "dual-track strategy" in Afghanistan and Iraq - working against U.S. and coalition desires while making efforts to "put forward the government" in both countries.
"They are walking both sides of the fence" said Burgess, who confirmed that it is the intelligence communities' belief that Iran is supporting the killing of U.S. soldiers.
"Iran is a big problem," Clapper added. He said recent bombing attempts in Thailand, India and Georgia targeting Israeli interests may not have been a technical success, but they still had a psychological impact.
Iran also poses a threat to U.S. interests and can close the Strait of Hormuz, the entryway to the Persian Gulf, at least temporarily, Burgess said. While Iran has substantial reach with its ballistic missiles, it would likely only use them if provoked, according to the U.S. intelligence assessment.
"Iran is unlikely to initiate or intentionally provoke a conflict," Burgess said.
Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, who co-chairs the committee, listed his own ideas about the Iranian threat during his remarks to open the hearing, noting that Iran's believed involvement in a recent plot to assassinate a Saudi ambassador on U.S. soil has changed the nature of the threat.
"The rulers in Iran clearly pose a more direct threat to us than many would have assumed just a year ago," McCain said. "And that is on top of the hostile actions in which Iran has been engaging for years, including killing Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan, supporting terrorist groups across the Middle East, destabilizing Arab countries, propping up and rearming the Assad regime in Syria, and continuing their undeterred pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability. The threat posed by the Iranian regime could soon bring the Middle East to the brink of war, if it has not already."