On February 9, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, James R. Clapper, warned lawmakers that Iran has the “means and motivation to develop longer-range missiles,” including intercontinental ballistic missiles. He briefed members of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on the threat Iran could pose to U.S. interests and the Middle East.
Clapper explained that the nuclear deal has “extended the amount of time Iran would need to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon from a few months to about a year.” He noted, however, that Tehran could eventually choose to expand its nuclear infrastructure and that it “does not face any insurmountable technical barriers to producing a nuclear weapon.” Clapper also highlighted Iran’s increasing involvement in the Syrian, Iraqi and Yemeni conflicts. The following are relevant sections from the annual Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community.
Iran Adhering to Deal To Preserve Capabilities and Gain Sanctions Relief
Iran probably views the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as a means to remove sanctions while preserving some of its nuclear capabilities, as well as the option to eventually expand its nuclear infrastructure. We continue to assess that Iran’s overarching strategic goals of enhancing its security, prestige, and regional influence have led it to pursue capabilities to meet its nuclear energy and technology goals and give it the ability to build missile-deliverable nuclear weapons, if it chooses to do so. Its pursuit of these goals will dictate its level of adherence to the JCPOA over time. We do not know whether Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.
We also continue to assess that Iran does not face any insurmountable technical barriers to producing a nuclear weapon, making Iran’s political will the central issue. Iran’s implementation of the JCPOA, however, has extended the amount of time Iran would need to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon from a few months to about a year. The JCPOA has also enhanced the transparency of Iran’s nuclear activities, mainly through improved access by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and investigative authorities under the Additional Protocol to its Comprehensive Safeguard Agreement.
As a result, the international community is well postured to quickly detect changes to Iran’s declared nuclear facilities designed to shorten the time Iran would need to produce fissile material. Further, the JCPOA provides tools for the IAEA to investigate possible breaches of prohibitions on specific R&D activities that could contribute to the development of a nuclear weapon.
We judge that Tehran would choose ballistic missiles as its preferred method of delivering nuclear weapons, if it builds them. Iran’s ballistic missiles are inherently capable of delivering WMD, and Tehran already has the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East. Iran’s progress on space launch vehicles—along with its desire to deter the United States and its allies—provides Tehran with the means and motivation to develop longer-range missiles, including ICBMs.
Since January, Tehran met the demands for implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), exchanged detainees, and released 10 US sailors. Despite these developments, the Islamic Republic of Iran presents an enduring threat to US national interests because of its support to regional terrorist and militant groups and the Asad regime, as well as its development of advanced military capabilities. Tehran views itself as leading the “axis of resistance”—which includes the Asad regime and subnational groups aligned with Iran, especially Lebanese Hizballah and Iraqi Shia militants. Their intent is to thwart US, Saudi, and Israeli influence, bolster its allies, and fight ISIL’s expansion. Tehran might even use American citizens detained when entering Iranian territories as bargaining pieces to achieve financial or political concessions in line with their strategic intentions.
Iran’s involvement in the Syrian, Iraqi, and Yemeni conflicts deepened in 2015. In Syria, Iran more openly acknowledged the deaths of Iranian “martyrs,” increased Iranian troop levels, and took more of a frontline role against “terrorists.” In Iraq, Iranian combat forces employed rockets, artillery, and drones against ISIL. Iran also supported Huthi rebels in Yemen by attempting to ship lethal aid to the Huthis. Tehran will almost certainly remain active throughout the Persian Gulf and broader Middle East in 2016 to support its regional partners and extend its regional influence. Iranian officials believe that engaging adversaries away from its borders will help prevent instability from spilling into Iran and reduce ISIL’s threat to Iran and its regional partners. Iran has also increased cooperation with Russia in the region.
Supreme Leader Khamenei continues to view the United States as a major threat to Iran, and we assess that his views will not change, despite implementation of the JCPOA deal. In October 2015, Khamenei publicly claimed the United States was using the JCPOA to “infiltrate and penetrate” Iran. His statement prompted the Iranian hardliner-dominated security services to crack down on journalists and businessmen with suspected ties to the West. The crackdown was intended by hardliners to demonstrate to President Ruhani and to Washington that a broader opening to the West following JCPOA would not be tolerated. Iran released several US citizens in January 2016 who were being held in Iran; however, it might attempt to use any additional US citizens as bargaining chips for US concessions.
Iran’s military and security services are keen to demonstrate that their regional power ambitions have not been altered by the JCPOA deal. One week prior to JCPOA Adoption Day, Iran publicized the launch of its new “long-range” and more accurate ballistic missile called the “Emad.” Iran also publicizes development of its domestically produced weapons systems, submarines and surface combatants, artillery, and UAVs to deter potential adversaries and strengthen its regional influence and prestige. Iran’s involvement in the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts has enabled its forces to gain valuable on-the-ground experience in counterinsurgency operations.