US: Iran 'not close' to abandoning nuclear program

Leading intelligence official says Iran can eventually produce nuclear weapons, but unlikely to initiate conflict.

Iranian President Ahmadinejad at nuclear facility 390 (R) (photo credit: Ho New / Reuters)
Iranian President Ahmadinejad at nuclear facility 390 (R)
(photo credit: Ho New / Reuters)
WASHINGTON – Despite international pressure on Iran, the regime is “not close” to giving up its quest for nuclear capabilities, a leading US intelligence official said Thursday.
“Iran today has the technical, scientific and industrial capability to eventually produce nuclear weapons,” Lt.- Gen. Ronald Burgess, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the US Senate Armed Services Committee.
“While international pressure on Iran has increased, including through sanctions, we assess that Tehran is not close to agreeing to abandon its nuclear program.”
He also said that Iran had the capability to close, “at least temporarily,” the Strait of Hormuz, a major passageway for global oil shipments, and could launch missile strikes and terrorist attacks against the US and its allies in retaliation for any attack on its nuclear facilities.
“However,” Burgess said, “The agency assesses Iran is unlikely to initiate or intentionally provoke a conflict.”
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who testified alongside Burgess Thursday, said that Iran has not yet decided whether to build a nuclear weapon, though it was acquiring some of the means to do so.
“We believe that the decision would be made by the Supreme Leader [Ali Khamenei] himself and he would base that decision on a cost-benefit analysis,” Clapper said. “I don’t think he’d want a nuclear weapon at any price, so that I think plays to the value of sanctions.”
Several lawmakers who were questioning the intelligence officials differed with the assessment.
“I’m very convinced that they’re going down the road of developing a nuclear weapon,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) said.
Clapper, though, said Iran would have to take several steps it has so far not done to construct a nuclear weapon, though he declined to specify what those steps were in an open session.
Clapper said that while he agreed with the assessment of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that Iran could build a nuclear bomb within one year, it would likely take longer.
He also echoed Panetta in saying that the intelligence community did not think Israel had decided whether or not to strike Iranian nuclear sites, despite speculation and a Washington Post column based on an interview with Panetta that suggested an attack could come as early as April.
“What could have given rise to this is simply the fact that the weather becomes better obviously in the spring and that could be conducive to an attack,” Clapper said. “We do not believe they’ve made such a decision.”
He said the US and Israel “largely agree” in their assessments of Iran’s nuclear progress.
Clapper also pointed to growing cooperation between Iran and al-Qaida, saying that Tehran has allowed the multinational terrorist outfit a degree of sanctuary in Iran but not as a launch pad for attacks.
“Iran and al-Qaida have, to a certain extent, a shotgun marriage,” he said. “The Iranians may think that they might use perhaps al-Qaida in the future as a surrogate or proxy.”
In testimony before the House of Representatives on Wednesday, Secretary for Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said that the US is closely tracking Iran and all of its surrogates for potential attacks on American interests.
“We are constantly monitoring their activities around the world,” she said. “Right now we have no specific or credible threat against any organization or target in the United States, but this is certainly a situation that bears watching.”
She noted that she has been conducting “a lot of outreach” to US Jewish groups in particular, including holding conference calls with Jewish leaders in the wake of recent attempted attacks on Jewish and Israeli targets abroad.
A bipartisan groups of US senators, meanwhile, rolled out a resolution on Thursday ruling out a strategy of containment for a nuclear-armed Iran.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also on Thursday, passed a resolution condemning the violence in Syria.
“There is a remarkable consensus in the Middle East that Bashar Assad is doomed, but the end could still be many months away in what winds up a civil war,” committee chairman Sen. John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) said. “It was important for us to make clear that Bashar Assad and his clique are to blame for the tragic violence and condemn them for their brutality against their own people.
That’s what we’ve done with this resolution.”
During his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Clapper said he didn’t know what would happen to Syria after the ouster of Assad or who would take over.
But he warned, “There would be kind of a vacuum I think that would lend itself to extremists.”
He also said that he wasn’t sure whether the new Egyptian government would honor the peace treaty with Israel, but that the decision would hinge in large part on the process of transition and drafting a new constitution.
“I can’t foresee a circumstance where any civilian government that emerges after [the transition] won’t at least a review the treaty,” he said.
“How that will come out, we don’t know.”