Sanctions and diplomacy may yet persuade Iran to give up its nuclear program, as its leaders have shown a rational “cost-benefit approach” in their calculations, senior US intelligence officials said.
The officials suggested on Tuesday that military conflict with Iran was not inevitable, despite soaring tensions with Tehran and a war of nerves over the Strait of Hormuz, a key oil trade choke point.
“We judge Iran’s nuclear decision-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence Tehran,” National Intelligence Director James Clapper told the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
“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 program,” he said.
He said economic sanctions were taking a toll and described a worsening rift between Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Iranian 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 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, Petraeus said.
“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.
The comments by senior intelligence officials echoed US President Barack Obama’s assessment in his State of the Union address last week, when he said “a peaceful resolution” remains possible with Iran.
Meanwhile, the head of the intelligence committee, US Senator Dianne Feinstein, revealed that Israel’s spy chief Tamir Pardo had visited Washington last week, amid speculation over a possible Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Such trips are usually secret, but Feinstein mentioned Pardo’s visit at the televised hearing as she discussed how Israel views Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
When asked by Feinstein about the likelihood of preemptive Israeli military action, Clapper said he would prefer to answer in a closed-door session, but said sanctions might force Iran to change course.
“Our hope is that the sanctions ... 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 US intelligence chiefs made clear their view of Iran’s nuclear program had not changed since an assessment last year by all 16 spy agencies that concluded Iran’s leaders are divided over whether to build nuclear weapons and have yet to take a decision to press ahead.