US intelligence: Iran decision on nuclear weapon matter of 'political will'

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The United States believes Iran has the technical capability to make nuclear weapons, but does not know if Iran will decide to do so, saying it's ultimately a matter of Iranian political will, the US intelligence community said in a worldwide threat assessment delivered to the Senate Tuesday. The United States would know in time if Iran attempted to break out to produce highly enriched uranium for a bomb, the assessment also said.

“We do not know if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons,” the US intelligence community’s annual worldwide threat assessment, delivered by the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to the Senate intelligence community Tuesday, states.

Given that Tehran “has developed technical expertise in a number of areas—including uranium enrichment, nuclear reactors, and ballistic missiles—from which it could draw if it decided to build missile-deliverable  nuclear weapons,” the assessment states, “this makes the central issue its political will to do so.”

Sanctions have had an impact on Iran's economy, but have so far not caused the Iranian leadership to change its course on the nuclear program, Clapper told the Senate panel during questioning.

“Sanctions have had a profound impact on Iran’s economy and the situation is getting worse,” Clapper said. “At the same time, at least publicly, overtly, it has not prompted a change in the Iranian leadership's decision, the Supreme Leader's approach,” to the nuclear program.

While the sanctions and the prospect of increased social unrest “do concern” the Iranian leadership, Clapper said, “at the same time, the Supreme Leader's standard is a level of privation that Iran suffered during the Iran-Iraq war. And I don’t think, he doesn’t believe they have reached that point yet.”

“Of course, as the Supreme Leader looks westward, at us, he can argue we are on decline, our influence in that part of the world,” is waning, Clapper continued. “And so, his view of the world may not necessarily be fact-based even when it comes to internal conditions in his country.”

Clapper said he would wait until closed briefing with the panel to discuss any classified intelligence on the leadership's thinking, as well as to address questions on alleged cooperation between Iran and North Korea.

Iran has made progress during the past year that could enable it to produce weapons grade uranium from its declared facilities and amassed uranium stockpile, the assessment said. However, Iran could not “break out” and produce enough weapons grade uranium for a bomb “before this activity is discovered,” the DNI document says.

More broadly, the new DNI assessment says the threat landscape to US interests is rapidly evolving, with cyber capabilities and budget cuts surpassing al Qaida-inspired jihadi terrorism as emerging chief US vulnerabilities.

“In some cases, the world is applying digital technologies faster than our ability to understand the security implications and mitigate potential risks,” the report says.

On terrorism, the DNI assessed that core al-Qaida is “probably” too degraded to carry out another major, complex attack in the United States, though its Yemeni affiliate and homegrown violent extremists still seek to attack the US homeland.

While some thwarted plots show Iran “may be increasingly willing to seize opportunities” to attack in the United States, “we have not changed our assessment that Iran prefers to avoid direct confrontation with the United States because regime preservation is its top priority.”

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