February 16, 2016
TSG IntelBrief: Iran Assessed as Major Threat
In early February, the leaders of the U.S. intelligence community, including Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, delivered their annual 'Worldwide Threat Assessment' to the U.S. Congress. While portraying the so-called Islamic State as the most potent immediate threat to the United States and its allies, the intelligence directors contradicted the growing view that the Iran nuclear deal has significantly reduced the strategic threat posed by Iran. Their presentation illustrated the scope and complexity of the Iran threat, including a robust cyber warfare capability, a sophisticated ballistic missile program, a capacity to conduct international terrorism, and regional influence acquired through military and financial support for pro-Iranian movements and governments, such as that of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. The intelligence officials forecast that some, although not most, of the revenues generated by nuclear deal-related sanctions relief will be devoted to enhancing Iran’s strategic capabilities.
The intelligence directors reserved most of their Iran commentary for Iran’s regional activities, asserting that 'Iran presents an enduring threat to U.S. national interests because of its support to regional terrorist and militant groups and the Assad regime, as well as its development of advanced military capabilities. Tehran views itself as leading the ‘axis of resistance’—which includes the Assad regime and subnational groups aligned with Iran, especially Lebanese Hizballah and Iraqi Shi’a militants.' Iran’s goals, according to the intelligence officials, are multifaceted, including: (1) thwarting U.S., Saudi, and Israeli influence; (2) bolstering Iran’s allies; (3) fighting the Islamic State’s expansion; and (4) preventing instability from spilling into Iran itself.
Iran’s fight against the Islamic State—which the intelligence briefing says includes use of rockets, artillery, and drones in Iraq—is not directly at odds with the U.S. objective of defeating the group. The United States is supporting the government of Iraq against the Islamic State, as is Iran. However, Iran’s support for Shi’a militia forces in Iraq could complicate the process of political reconciliation after the Islamic State is expelled from Iraq. Shi’a militias have committed significant abuses against Sunni residents in areas recaptured from the Islamic State. A more pressing concern is in Syria, where Iran is contributing its own forces, as well as allied Shi’a ground forces, to a Russia-supported effort to defeat U.S. rebels and enable Assad to remain in office indefinitely. Gains in the Aleppo area by the Russia-Iran-Assad coalition derailed peace talks convened in late January and could cause a political transition process agreed by major stakeholders to collapse outright. The advances in northern Syria have also raised the potential for Turkey to join the conflict directly to keep Assad forces and Kurdish fighters away from areas bordering Turkey. In Yemen, Iran’s support for Zaydi Shi’a Houthi rebels is contributing to the perpetuation of the country's conflict.
Particularly significant—and in furtherance of Iran’s regional objectives—are Iran’s burgeoning ballistic missile capabilities. The intelligence community assesses Iran’s missile arsenal to be the largest in the Middle East and, in some ways, technically more sophisticated than that of North Korea. Iran’s missiles can reach any adversary in the region as well as bases in southern Europe; can deliver weapons of mass destruction (WMD); and could be developed further into intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Iran conducted 140 ballistic missile tests during the few years of the nuclear deal negotiations, and Iran’s relatively moderate President Hassan Rouhani has vowed to ignore UN Security Council Resolution 2231 banning Iran from missiles that are nuclear-capable.
Iran is also assessed as able to exert influence through terrorism and cyber warfare. Even though al-Qaeda and the Islamic State represent more active global terrorist threats, Iran and its closest ally, Lebanese Hizballah, retain a global terrorism network that rivals those of these organizations. The Iran-backed network has acted in the not too distant past, most notably with Hizballah’s killing of five Israeli tourists in Bulgaria in 2012. The intelligence directors assess that Iran might make further arrests of American citizens traveling in Iran to use as bargaining chips to achieve strategic objectives. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) maintains a 'cyber army' to conduct cyber espionage and attacks against the United States and its allies. In recent years, Iran has been deemed responsible for the cyber attacks on state-run Saudi oil company Aramco, Qatar’s Rasgas natural gas conglomerate, the U.S. State Department, and the Sands Casino in Las Vegas.
Nor did the intelligence directors close the nuclear issue entirely. They assess that Iran is complying with the nuclear deal's commitments, which formally began implementation on January 16, but that the agreement did not necessarily end Iran’s ambition to ultimately develop a nuclear weapon. The deal’s man restrictions end in 2031, and the intelligence community believes that Iran has the technical capacity to produce a nuclear weapon, if it chooses to do so.
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