On April 9, the annual U.S. intelligence assessment reported that Iran has not taken the steps necessary to produce a nuclear weapon. But it also warned that the Islamic Republic might expand its nuclear program if the United States does not lift sanctions. “Iranian officials probably will consider options ranging from further enriching uranium up to 60 percent to designing and building a new 40-Megawatt Heavy Water reactor,” the Annual Threat Assessment released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) reported. One week later, on April 16, Iran began enriching uranium up to 60 percent in retaliation for an explosion at the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility; the sabotage was widely linked to Israel. Uranium must be enriched to at least 90 percent to fuel a weapon, but enriching uranium gets easier the more highly concentrated it is.
Iran is likely to continue to rely on Shiite proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen to entrench its regional influence, the ODNI reported. It identified Iraq as the “key battleground” between the United States and Iran for influence for several years. Rocket attacks against U.S. bases and convoys by Iran-backed Shiite militias have been aimed at “challenging the U.S. presence and maintaining influence in Iraqi political and security issues,” it said. Tehran was also pursuing a “permanent” military presence in Syria – where it backed President Bashar al Assad – and would remain a “destabilizing force” in Yemen by supplying missiles and drones to Houthi rebels.
Iran’s tactics have involved a mix of conventional and unconventional capabilities, including ballistic missiles, cyberattacks and disinformation. Its conventional military capabilities and ballistic missiles were designed to deter attacks on Iran and to retaliate, if needed. “Despite Iran’s economic challenges, Tehran will seek to improve and acquire new conventional weaponry,” the assessment reported. Iran’s cyber and disinformation capabilities posed a “significant threat” to United States and its allies. Tehran was “increasingly active” in cyberspace in 2020 and had tried to undermine confidence in the U.S. presidential election. The following are excerpts from the ODNI report.
The United States
- “With regards to U.S. interests in particular, Iran’s willingness to conduct attacks probably will hinge on its perception of the United States’ willingness to respond, its ability to conduct attacks without triggering direct conflict, and the prospect of jeopardizing potential U.S. sanctions relief.”
- “Iran remains committed to countering US pressure, although Tehran is also wary of becoming involved in a full-blown conflict.”
- “During the past several years, US law enforcement has arrested numerous individuals with connections to Iran as agents of influence or for collecting information on Iranian dissidents in the United States, and Iran’s security forces have been linked to attempted assassination and kidnapping plots in Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia.”
- On the nuclear program: "We continue to assess that Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities that we judge would be necessary to produce a nuclear device. However, following the US withdrawal from the JCPOA agreement in May 2018, Iranian officials have abandoned some of Iran’s commitments and resumed some nuclear activities that exceed the JCPOA limits."
“Regime leaders probably will be reluctant to engage diplomatically in talks with the United States in the near term without sanctions or humanitarian relief or the United States rejoining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)... If Tehran does not receive sanctions relief, Iranian officials probably will consider options ranging from further enriching uranium up to 60 percent to designing and building a new 40 Megawatt Heavy Water reactor.”
- On missiles: “Iran demonstrated its conventional military strategy, which is primarily based on deterrence and the ability to retaliate against an attacker, with its launch of multiple ballistic missiles against a base housing U.S. forces in Iraq in response to the January 2020 killing of Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods Force (IRGC-QF) Commander Qasem Soleimani. Iran has the largest ballistic missile force in the region, and despite Iran’s economic challenges, Tehran will seek to improve and acquire new conventional weaponry.”
- On Afghanistan: “Iran publicly backs Afghan peace talks, but it is worried about a long-term U.S. presence in Afghanistan. As a result, Iran is building ties with both the government in Kabul and the Taliban so it can take advantage of any political outcome.”
- On Iraq: "Iran will remain a problematic actor in Iraq, which will be the key battleground for Iran’s influence this year and during the next several years, and Iranian-supported Iraqi Shia militias will continue to pose the primary threat to US personnel in Iraq."
- On Israel: “Tehran remains a threat to Israel, both directly through its missile forces and indirectly through its support of Hizballah and other terrorist groups.”
- On Lebanon: “We expect Hizballah, in coordination with Iran and other Iran-aligned Shia militants, to continue developing terrorist capabilities as a deterrent, as retaliatory options, and as instruments of coercion against its adversaries.”
- On Syria: “Iran is pursuing a permanent military presence and economic deals in Syria as the conflict winds down there.”
- On Yemen: "Iran will remain a destabilizing force in Yemen, as Tehran’s support to the Huthis—including supplying ballistic and cruise missiles as well as unmanned systems—poses a threat to US partners and interests, notably through strikes on Saudi Arabia."
- On Assassinations: “We assess that Iran remains interested in developing networks inside the United States—an objective it has pursued for more than a decade—but the greatest risk to US persons exists outside the Homeland, particularly in the Middle East and South Asia. Iran has threatened to retaliate against U.S. officials for the Soleimani killing in January 2020 and attempted to conduct lethal operations in the United States previously.”
- On Cyber: “Iran’s expertise and willingness to conduct aggressive cyber operations make it a significant threat to the security of US and allied networks and data. Iran has the ability to conduct attacks on critical infrastructure, as well as to conduct influence and espionage activities.”
- On Disinformation Operations: "We expect Tehran to focus on online covert influence, such as spreading disinformation about fake threats or compromised election infrastructure and recirculating anti-U.S. content. Iran attempted to influence dynamics around the 2020 US presidential election by sending threatening messages to U.S. voters, and Iranian cyber actors in December 2020 disseminated information about US election officials to try to undermine confidence in the U.S. election."