Jim Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said Iran was “more willing to conduct an attack in the US in response to real or perceived US actions that threaten the regime”.
He was speaking before the senate intelligence committee. In his written remarks to senators, Clapper also said an alleged plot last year to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the US showed Iran might be more willing now to carry out attacks on US soil.
“Iran’s willingness to sponsor future attacks in the US or against our interests abroad probably will be shaped by Tehran’s evaluation of the costs it bears for the plot against [Saudi Arabia’s] ambassador as well as Iranian leaders’ perceptions of US threats against the regime,” he said.
Meanwhile, US intelligence chiefs said sanctions and diplomacy still have a chance to persuade Iran to give up its nuclear program as Tehran’s leaders have shown a rational “cost-benefit approach” in their calculations.
The officials suggested to senators military conflict with Iran was not inevitable despite soaring tensions with Tehran and a war of nerves over the Strait of Hormuz. “We judge Iran’s nuclear decision-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence Tehran,” said Mr Clapper.
“Iranian leaders undoubtedly consider Iran’s security, prestige, and influence, as well as the international political and security environment, when making decisions about its nuclear programme.”
He said economic sanctions were taking a toll and described a worsening rift between Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The overriding goal of Iran’s leaders remained “regime survival” and it was too early to say how economic strains triggered by a wave of tougher sanctions would affect their decisions, CIA director David Petraeus told the same hearing.
With a run on the Iranian currency, inflationary pressures and unemployment, the sanctions were “biting” more now than ever before, said Gen Petraeus.
“I think what we have to see now is how does that play out, what is the level of popular discontent inside Iran, does that influence the strategic decision making of the supreme leader and the regime?” he said.
When asked about the likelihood of pre-emptive military action by Israel, Clapper said he would prefer to answer the question in a closed-door session but said sanctions might force Tehran to change course.
“Our hope is that the sanctions, particularly those which have been recently implemented, will have the effect of inducing a change in Iranian policy toward their apparent pursuit of a nuclear capability,” he said.
“Obviously, this is a very sensitive issue right now.”
The hearing confirmed US intelligence services have not changed their view of Iran’s nuclear program since issuing an assessment last year. The 16 spy agencies believe Iran’s leaders are divided over whether to build nuclear weapons and have yet to take a decision to press ahead.
After a damning report in November by the UN International Atomic Energy Agency, the US and the EU have ratcheted up sanctions on Iran. The measures focus on Iran’s vital oil industry and central bank in a bid to force Tehran to abandon uranium enrichment work, which the West suspects masks a drive to build an atomic bomb. Iran insists its nuclear project is peaceful.