Director of National Intelligence James Clapper warned a Senate panel that a 2011 plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, which U.S. officials say was hatched in Iran, indicates that Iran Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his government are willing to launch attacks in the United States.
“The 2011 plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the United States shows that some Iranian officials — probably including the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — have changed their calculus and are now more willing to conduct an attack on the United States in response to real or perceived U.S. actions that threaten the regime,” said Clapper in prepared testimony before the committee.
Clapper’s testimony and questions from lawmakers highlighted changing perceptions about threats to the United States. The annual hearing on worldwide threats to the United States was the first since Osama bin Laden and other top al Qaeda leaders were killed, and it suggested that Iran is now clearly seen as the leading threat to the United States and its allies, such as Israel.
“When you're viewing it from the Israeli standpoint, it clearly, I think, reaches the level of perhaps the number one challenge of 2012, as the chairman has indicated,” said Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.).
The Senate Intelligence Committee peppered Clapper and other high-ranking U.S. intelligence officials with questions and concerns about Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon and penchant to carry out terrorist attacks.
Clapper said the United States is working closely with Israel in an effort to combat Iran, which the United States believes is moving towards weaponizing a nuclear warhead. Pointing to last year’s foiled plot to kill Saudi Arabia’s top diplomat to the United States, Clapper also argued Iran has become more brazen in its willingness to attack the United States and its allies.
Clapper agreed with Coats that sanctions haven’t prompted Iran to halt or slow its uranium enrichment.
Coats expressed concern that many of the same tactics of sanctions and verbal condemnation presently being used against Iran were taken towards North Korea in the past, but to no avail. North Korea is armed with nuclear weapons now.
“I just hope we don't have to talk ourselves into a situation where we're not able to back up what we say,” said Coats.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told "60 Minutes" in an interview aired over the weekend that “there are no option that are off the table” when it comes to stopping Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons, including taking military steps.
“If they proceed and we get intelligence that they're proceeding with developing a nuclear weapon, then we will take whatever steps are necessary to stop it,” said Panetta.
Clapper highlighted the difference between the United States’s approach to North Korea and its approach to Iran.
“It's not policies as much as it's execution,” said Clapper. “And in the case of the North Koreans, our policy was just words, not action.”
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) hinted that perhaps it was time to take further steps.
“This senator believes the stakes are so high that the policy will be executed,” said Nelson.
—Updated at 2:35 p.m.