Iran Unlikely to Strike First, U.S. Official Says

The Iranian military is unlikely to intentionally provoke a conflict with the West, the top U.S. military intelligence official said today.

Lieutenant General Ronald Burgess, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said Iran probably has the ability to “temporarily close the Strait of Hormuz with its naval forces,” as some Iranian officials have threatened to do if attacked or in response to sanctions on its oil exports by the U.S. and European Union.

“Iran has also threatened to launch missiles against the United States and our allies in the region in response to an attack,” Burgess said in testimony at a hearing today of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “It could also employ its terrorist surrogates worldwide. However, it is unlikely to initiate or intentionally provoke a conflict or launch a preemptive attack.”

Iran has the capability to strike regional and European targets with its ballistic missiles and is seeking to improve their accuracy, Burgess said in the latest U.S. public assessment of Iran’s military prowess. Iran’s regional military capability continues to improve, with new ships and submarines and expanded bases in the Gulf of Oman, Persian Gulf and Caspian Sea, he said.

No Israeli Decision

U.S. interests are threatened by Iran through its support of terrorist and militant groups, as shown in “the recent plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States,” Burgess said. Burgess said Israel hasn’t made a decision to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Iran’s Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi said on Dec. 27 that his nation may close the Strait of Hormuz, the passageway for about one-fifth of globally traded oil, if the U.S. and its allies impose stricter economic sanctions in an effort to halt his country’s nuclear research. U.S. officials such as Pentagon spokesman George Little have said since that threat that they haven’t seen any Iranian moves to close the waterway.

Burgess testified about the annual assessment of global threats by U.S. civilian and military intelligence agencies. Turning to the war in Afghanistan, Burgess told the committee that the country’s national army and police face continued challenges in developing “into an independent, self-sustaining security apparatus.”

‘Pervasive’ Afghan Corruption

The Afghan army and police exceeded their 2011 growth benchmarks, and the army has shown “marked improvements” in some operations when partnered with with U.S. and NATO forces, Burgess said.

Still, the Afghan National Army must depend on U.S.-led forces “for many critical combat-enabling functions,” while the Afghan National Police “suffers from pervasive corruption and popular perceptions that it is unable to extend security in many areas,” Burgess said.

The Army’s reliance on the coalition forces “underscores its inability to operate independently,” Burgess said. “Nevertheless, Afghanistan’s population generally favors the army over the police.”

Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who heads the committee, said success in giving Afghan forces the lead role in more operations will depend on their readiness, the insurgency’s strength and the progress of reconciliation talks with the Taliban.

Iran ‘Underground’ Effort

While Iran has said its nuclear program is for civilian purposes, U.S and other Western governments have said Iran is developing a capacity to produce nuclear weapons.

Burgess said Iran is among several nations, including Russia, China and Pakistan, to protect “critical military and civilian assets” with “active underground programs.” He said his agency assessed that Iran was “not close” to abandoning its nuclear program.

Director of National Intelligences James Clapper, who testified alongside Burgess, said it was “technically feasible but probably not likely” that Iran could produce a nuclear device within a year of making a political decision to proceed.

Iranian state-run Press TV said yesterday that 3,000 “new- generation” Iranian-made centrifuges were installed at the main uranium enrichment site at Natanz, and domestically made fuel plates were loaded at a medical research reactor in Tehran.

‘Not Terribly Impressive’

“Our view on this is that it’s not terribly new and it’s not terribly impressive,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters in Washington yesterday. The announcement was “hyped” for a domestic audience, she said.

Iran’s known nuclear activities are monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency, and there are no reports of enriched uranium being diverted from those facilities for weapons use.

Tensions between Iran and Israel have escalated this week. Iranians arrested after blasts on a Bangkok street aimed to attack Israeli diplomats and the devices used were similar to bombs targeting Israelis in India and Georgia this week, Thailand’s police chief, Priewphan Damaphong, said yesterday. Israel has blamed Iran for the attacks, and Iran has denied involvement.

Iranian Attack Recovery

Asked about how long it would take Iran to recover from an attack on its nuclear facilities, Clapper said he couldn’t corroborate the U.S. military’s view that a strike would deal a setback of one to two years at most.

“I don’t disagree with it, but I think there’s a lot of factors that could play here,” Clapper said.

The uncertainties include “how effective the attack was, what the targets were, what rate of recovery might be,” Clapper said. “There are a lot of imponderables that could affect a guestimate -- and that’s all it is.”

Clapper said he had doubts Iran eventually will make the political decision to move forward with assembling a nuclear device.

“They have put themselves in a position, but there are certain things they have not yet done and have not done for some time,” Clapper said. He declined to say in public testimony what steps Iran hasn’t taken that would be leading indicators of a decision to build a bomb.

To contact the reporter on this story: Tony Capaccio in Washington at acapaccio@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net

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