WASHINGTON — Iran's top officials now may be more willing to sponsor attacks in the United States, the top U.S. intelligence official said Tuesday in a warning that reflected rising tensions over Tehran's suspected nuclear weapons program.
The director of national intelligence, James Clapper, also said that while al-Qaida remained a danger, the deaths of Osama bin Laden and other key figures had seriously degraded the core terrorist organization's ability to mount major strikes.
Testifying before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on the findings of an annual report on threats facing the United States, Clapper said that continued "robust" U.S. counterterrorism efforts could further reduce the Pakistan-based group's status to one of "largely symbolic importance" and fragment the global jihadist movement that bin Laden had inspired.
Iran and the danger posed by al-Qaida after bin Laden's death in a U.S. special forces raid May 2 in Pakistan dominated the questioning of Clapper and other U.S. intelligence officials at the hearing on the 2012 Worldwide Threat Assessment.
Terrorism, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, attacks on U.S. computer systems — especially by China and Russia — and the cybertheft of government and corporate secrets are "the immediate forefront of our security concerns," Clapper told the panel.
He also said that the turmoil ignited by last year's Arab Spring uprisings in the Mideast was likely to be "protracted," with the rising bloodshed in Syria potentially growing into a regional crisis.
On Iran, Clapper said an alleged Iranian plot last year to kill Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States shows that some Iranian officials — probably including supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — now may be "more willing" to launch attacks in the United States. Iran has denied mounting a plot.
"We are also concerned about Iranian plotting against U.S. or allied interests overseas," Clapper said. He added that the costs Iran bears for the alleged plot to kill the Saudi envoy and its leaders' perceptions of U.S. threats to Iran probably will determine "Iran's willingness to sponsor future attacks against the United States."
Repeating a finding from last year, Clapper said U.S. intelligence analysts thought "Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons," but that they didn't think that Tehran had decided to do so.