The intelligence community’s public statements on Iran this year in some cases are milder about the threat posed by Tehran than in previous years.
The “worldwide threat assessment” has been released as the Obama administration negotiates a nuclear deal with Tehran and relies on Iran’s battlefield leadership to reverse gains by the Islamic State terrorist army in Iraq.
In 2013, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper delivered particularly alarming, public oral testimony on Iran’s actions and motives. He told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that Iran was “exploiting the unrest in the Arab world” and undermining the United States, that “Iran continues to be a destabilizing force in the region” and that its ultimate goal is to “secure regional dominance.”
A review of Mr. Clapper’s public oral testimony last month before the Senate Committee on Armed Services shows softer language. The No. 1 intelligence officer did not use the word “destabilizing” to describe Iranian actions, but instead talked of its attempt to “influence” other countries. He did not say Iran’s goal is to “secure regional dominance.”
What’s more, Mr. Clapper’s annual written report on worldwide threats did not mention Iran in the section on terrorism, as it had in previous years.
Michael Birmingham, Mr. Clapper’s spokesman, said it is unfair to compare a small sample of comments.
“You need only look at the totality of the assessments provided publicly in written and oral statements by Director Clapper and [National Counterterrorism Center] Director [Nicholas] Rasmussen in open testimony Feb. 26 and Feb. 12, respectively, to understand there is no change in the Intelligence Community’s assessment of the threat posed by Iran or its client Hizballah,” Mr. Birmingham said in an email.
American hard-liners on Iran see a U.S. administration that is ignoring or soft-pedaling Iran’s bad deeds, such as its recent success in toppling the American-backed government of Yemen.
“They are downplaying everything Iran is doing,” said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, a military analyst. “This administration is so focused on getting a nuclear agreement with Iran, which will ensure that Iran becomes a nuclear-armed nation when [President] Obama leaves office.”
‘Spreading their influence’
It is clear that Iran’s position in the region today is a lot different from what it was a year ago. Iran has become an unstated U.S. ally in the fight against the Islamic State, a Sunni Muslim extremist group that captured large swaths of Iraq last summer. Iraqi Shiite militias, led and equipped by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Quds Force, are doing a lot of the fighting to try to take back the pivotal city of Tikrit.
On another front, Secretary of State John F. Kerry is on the final lap of a momentous deal with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that is supposed to freeze Iran’s nuclear bomb program.
In December, Mr. Obama said Iran has the potential to be a major regional power.
In his public oral statement in 2013, Mr. Clapper characterized Iran this way: “In Iran, leaders are exploiting the unrest in the Arab world to try to spread influence abroad and undermine the United States and our allies. Iran continues to be a destabilizing force in the region, providing weapons and training to Syrian forces and standing up a militia force there to fight the Syrian opposition. Iran’s efforts to secure regional dominance, however, achieve limited results.”
Mr. Clapper made no such blunt remarks this year in his public opening statement or when he was questioned by senators.
Asked by a senator to describe Iran’s actions today, Mr. Clapper said:
“The way that Iran is exerting its influence, I think, most prominently in the region is through their organization called the Iranian [Revolutionary Guard Corps] Quds Force, which is a combination of intelligence and special ops, has extensive commercial enterprise businesses and this sort of thing. And so they use that as their instrumentality, as they are now in Iraq, for extending their influence as one of their proxies. And of course, another one of their proxies is Hezbollah, which they’ve had a long client-subordinate relationship with. And so they use those as sort of a physical manifestation of their spreading their influence in the region. And certainly from an intelligence perspective, we try hard to keep tabs on those entities as we can from intelligence.”
Mr. Birmingham, the spokesman for Mr. Clapper, pointed to this answer on Iran’s extension of influence as evidence that the assessment has not changed.
Mr. Birmingham also singled out a paragraph about Iran in Mr. Clapper’s written report to the intelligence committee. Analysts say such written reports are not quoted in the media on a scale as oral public testimony, which creates instant headlines and stories around the world.
That paragraph states, in part: “The Islamic Republic of Iran is an ongoing threat to U.S. national interests because of its support to the [Bashar Assad] regime in Syria, promulgation of anti-Israeli policies, development of advanced military capabilities and pursuit of its nuclear program.”
Mr. Clapper each year delivers an oral opening statement on world threats and answers legislators’ questions. He also submits a written annual report that is outlined in the opening oral statement.
This year’s written report on world threats is another point of contention among hard-liners on Iran.
In at least the last two reports, Mr. Clapper had listed Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah, under the section on “Terrorism,” right alongside al Qaeda and other groups.
“Outside of the Syrian theater, Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah continue to directly threaten the interests of U.S. allies,” the 2014 report said. “Hezbollah has increased its global terrorist activity in recent years to a level that we have not seen since the 1990s.”
The 2015 report’s “Terrorism” section does not mention Iran. It mentions only Sunni extremist groups that are Iran’s enemies.
“I think the Obama administration has been playing down the various threats posed by Iran from its first days in office, but the omission of the mention of Iran’s support for terrorism in the latest DNI statement on world threats is one of the most alarming indications that the administration is turning a blind eye to Iran’s hostile activities in a rush to secure a nuclear deal,” said James Phillips, a Middle East analyst at The Heritage Foundation.
Mr. Birmingham counters that Mr. Rasmussen, the NCTC director, did, in fact, designate Iran as being linked to terrorism in his Feb. 12 report and public testimony to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
“Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah remain committed to conducting terrorist activities worldwide and we are concerned their activities could either endanger or target U.S. and other Western interests,” Mr. Rasmussen said. “Iran remains the foremost state sponsor of terrorism, and works through the [Revolutionary Guard Quds Force] and Ministry of Intelligence and Security to support groups that target U.S. and Israeli interests globally.”
On Feb. 26, a senator asked Mr. Clapper, “Would you still characterize them as one of the largest state sponsors of terrorism in the world?” Mr. Clapper answered, “They are still classified that way. Yes.”
He did not elaborate.
Indeed, Iran has been on a roll in the region. It has helped topple the U.S.-backed regime in Yemen in favor of a Shiite group, has kept Mr. Assad in power in Syria, and has become the indispensable nation for Iraq in its fight for survival against the Islamic State.
During all of this, Iran has not blunted its public statements that it wants Israel annihilated. Ayatollah Khamenei’s representative to the Quds Force said last month that Iran is in a global war and that the Islamic revolution banner will fly over the White House one day.
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