In Congressional testimony, U.S. intelligence warned in November that Iran posed an escalating threat to the United States. Tehran is “becoming more aggressive and more capable in their nefarious activity than ever before,” FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on November 17. “They employ a growing range of tactics to advance their interests and to harm the United States.” The public warnings by three of President Biden’s most important national security officials reflected U.S. concern about the brazenness of Iran’s foreign policy.
The Islamic Republic could attack the United States “with little to no warning,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas testified. “For the foreseeable future, Iran probably will present an enduring counterintelligence threat to the homeland as it seeks to advance its goals in the Middle East,” he added.
Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah were still determined to retaliate for the U.S. drone strike that killed General Qassem Soleimani in 2020, Christine Abizaid, director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), told the committee. “Iran is pursuing a diverse campaign that employs legal, financial, and lethal action in pursuit of its revenge,” she said. Soleimani was commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—Qods Force, which oversaw Iran’s proxy network of militias in the Middle East.
Iran also posed a growing cyber threat to U.S. infrastructure, including hospitals, oil pipelines, electric grids, and water treatment plants, Mayorkas told the committee. “Iranian cyber espionage is a high frequency, widespread threat, and Iran may choose to leverage its cyber access for disruptive or destructive attacks,” he said. The following are excerpts from each official’s Senate testimony.
FBI Director Christopher Wray
Targeting the U.S.: Iran and its global proxies and partners, including Iraqi Shia militant groups, continue to attack and plot against the United States and our allies throughout the Middle East in response to U.S. pressure. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (“IRGC-QF”) continues to provide support to militant resistance groups and terrorist organizations. Iran also continues to support Lebanese Hizballah and other terrorist groups. Hizballah has sent operatives to build terrorist infrastructures worldwide. The arrests of individuals in the United States allegedly linked to Hizballah’s main overseas terrorist arm, and their intelligence collection and procurement efforts, demonstrate Hizballah’s interest in long-term contingency planning activities here in the Homeland. Hizballah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah also has threatened retaliation for the death of IRGC-QF Commander Qassem Soleimani. This threat was exemplified in 2022, when the Department charged an Iranian national and member of the IRGC, working on behalf of the Qods Force, with a plot to murder a former National Security Advisor.
Top Threats: We see nations such as China, Russia, and Iran becoming more aggressive and more capable in their nefarious activity than ever before. These nations seek to undermine our core democratic, economic, and scientific institutions. They employ a growing range of tactics to advance their interests and to harm the United States. Defending American institutions and values against these threats is a national security imperative and a priority for the FBI.
Targeting Dissidents Abroad: In recent years, we have seen a rise in efforts by authoritarian regimes to interfere with freedom of expression and punish dissidents abroad. These acts of repression cross national borders, often reaching into the United States. It’s important to note countries like China, Russia and Iran, stalk, intimidate, and harass certain people in the U.S. This is called transnational repression. It’s illegal and the FBI is investigating it.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas
Plots: We continue to see Iran and its partner, Lebanese Hezbollah, pose an enduring threat to the homeland, evidenced by Iran’s public statements threatening retaliation in the United States for Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force (IRGC-QF) Commander Qasem Soleimani’s death and historical arrests of IRGC and Hezbollah members plotting operations in the United States. In the past several years, U.S. law enforcement has arrested numerous individuals for spying on Iranian dissidents in the United States and for acting as agents of influence for the Iranian Government. In August, federal prosecutors unsealed charges against an IRGC member for plotting to assassinate a former US official. Given its capabilities, Iran could advance an attack plot targeted at the United States with little to no warning. DHS continues to work closely with other law enforcement agencies and the Intelligence Community to stay aware of ongoing threat streams and take preventative actions as appropriate.
Cyber Threats: Our interconnectedness and the technology that enables it—the cyber ecosystem— exposes us to a dynamic and evolving threat environment, one that is not contained by borders or limited to centralized actors, one that impacts governments, the private sector, civil society, and every individual. As a result, cyber threats from foreign governments and transnational criminals remain among the most prominent threats facing our nation. Hostile nations like Russia, the PRC, Iran, and North Korea, as well as cybercriminals around the world, continually grow more sophisticated and create more adverse consequences.
Iran has a robust cyber program that targets networks in nearly every sector, and conducts offensive cyber operations in the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and via other regional adversaries. Iranian cyber-attacks recently caused severe harm to government networks in Albania, limiting access to essential services. These attacks include disruptive and destructive cyber-attacks such as website defacements and data deletion. Iranian cyber espionage is a high frequency, widespread threat, and Iran may choose to leverage its cyber access for disruptive or destructive attacks.
Tactics: The United States faces an evolving and increasingly complex threat from nation-state adversaries, including the PRC, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, each of which views the United States as a strategic adversary. These adversaries employ a combination of traditional and non- traditional intelligence tradecraft, predatory economic and cultural outreach, and cyber and traditional espionage to seek illicit access to U.S. critical infrastructure and steal sensitive information, technology, and industrial secrets. These governments—and a growing number of others who are learning from their tactics—conduct overt and covert influence campaigns spreading misinformation and disinformation to sow and exploit divisions in our society, undermine confidence in our democratic institutions, and weaken our alliances. In some cases, they surveil, harass, and otherwise seek to suppress perceived dissidents and regime opponents overseas, including those now living in the United States.
We assess that for the foreseeable future, Iran probably will present an enduring counterintelligence threat to the homeland as it seeks to advance its goals in the Middle East. During the past several years, U.S. law enforcement has arrested numerous individuals for spying on Iranian dissidents in the United States and for acting as agents of influence for the Iranian government.
Election Interference: The security and resilience of our nation’s election infrastructure is one of the highest priorities for DHS. As demonstrated in recent election cycles, we continue to face a wide range of threats targeting U.S. election infrastructure and voters by sophisticated, state-sponsored cyber threat actors, such as the PRC, Russia, and Iran. In many cases, the foreign threat actors who are attempting to breach our election systems are the very same ones who are conducting influence operations that seek to sow discord in our country. Their influence operations often utilize information obtained illicitly through cyber activity, or they make false or exaggerated claims of cybersecurity breaches. These foreign threat actors advance their own disinformation narratives about U.S. elections, as well as amplify existing domestic disinformation narratives. Protecting election infrastructure is a whole-of-government effort.
NCTC Director Christine Abizaid
Threat to the U.S.: Iran continues to encourage and support plots against the United States at home and abroad, especially in the Middle East. Iran and Lebanese Hizballah have remained intent on retaliating for the death of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) Commander Soleimani, with Iran plotting attacks against former U.S. officials.
Tactics: Iran is pursuing a diverse campaign that employs legal, financial, and lethal action in pursuit of its revenge. Tehran has publicly threatened to conduct lethal operations including against former President Donald Trump and former Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, and has recently increased its threats of lethal action in the Homeland. In August 2022, an Iran-based IRGC member was charged with attempting to arrange the murder of former National Security Advisor John Bolton in the United States.
Iran also pursues a campaign against anti-Iranian regime dissidents around the world, including in the United States. In July 2021, U.S. law enforcement charged an Iranian intelligence official and four others with attempting to kidnap an Iranian-American journalist in New York and forcibly returning her to Iran. At the end of July 2022, a man with a loaded assault weapon was arrested after behaving suspiciously outside the same journalist’s home.
Support for Terrorists: Iran has also demonstrated its willingness to engage in terrorism in the Middle East, as evidenced in June when Turkish authorities arrested members of an Iranian cell planning to kidnap and assassinate Israeli citizens in Istanbul. The plot was intended as retaliation for an alleged Israeli operation in Tehran. Separately, Iran-backed militants in Iraq and Syria target U.S. forces with unmanned aircraft systems and indirect fire attacks as they try to compel their withdrawal from the region.