Iran is moving toward a nuclear capability but its intentions are unclear. Al-Qaida is weakened but remains dangerous. In Afghanistan, the Taliban are a determined adversary, but it may make sense to negotiate with them.
These were the highlights of the annual assessment of threats to U.S. security, delivered Tuesday on Capitol Hill by the nation's intelligence agencies.
The director of national intelligence, James Clapper, was also able list some accomplishments, beginning with the big triumph — tracking down and killing Osama bin Laden.
"With Osama bin Laden's death, the global jihadist movement lost its most iconic and inspirational leader," Clapper said before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. "The new al-Qaida commander is less charismatic, and the death or capture of prominent al-Qaida figures has shrunk the group's top leadership layer."
Al-Qaida affiliate groups in Yemen and Africa, however, have become more dangerous.
The big concern this time is Iran. This past year saw the alleged Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington D.C. The intelligence agencies also reported that Iranian leaders are now more willing to conduct an attack in the United States if they feel U.S. actions are threatening their regime, and Clapper followed up, saying there is more to unfold.
"Consistent with their outreach elsewhere, they're trying as well to penetrate and engage in this hemisphere," he said.
A Nuclear Iran
As for possible nuclear plans, the spy agencies told the Senate committee — as they have before — that Iran is keeping open the option to develop a nuclear weapon. Clapper said, for example, they are developing the capabilities Iran would need to produce a nuclear bomb.
"They are certainly moving on that path, but we don't believe they've actually made the decision to go ahead with a nuclear weapon," he said.
The prospect of Iran becoming a nuclear power, and how the U.S. and Israel should deal with that danger, was clearly the top concern of the senators who heard today's testimony.
Several asked what might actually persuade Iran's leaders that developing a nuclear weapon might not be in Iran's interest. The only answer the intelligence officials could offer was that economic pressure might work, prompted by tougher sanctions.
"Sanctions have been biting much more, literally, in recent weeks than they have until this time," said CIA Director David Petraeus. "So I think what we have to see now is how does that play out. What is the level of popular discontent inside Iran [and] does that influence the strategic decision making of the supreme leader and the regime."
Afghanistan and Syria
On Afghanistan, the intelligence agencies gave a guarded assessment: the Taliban have been set back in some places, but mostly where U.S. and allied forces are well positioned. The Taliban remain, in James Clapper's words, a "determined adversary," but some diplomatic outreach to them, he said, could soon make sense.
"I don't think anyone harbors any illusions about it, but I think the position is to at least explore the potential for negotiating with them as a part of this overall resolution of the situation in Afghanistan," Clapper said.
Clapper found little good news to report in Syria, where the regime of Bashar Assad has been waging a bloody fight against its opposition for months now. Clapper did say he thinks it's just a question of time before Assad falls, though it could be a long time.
"The opposition continues to be fragmented, but I do not see how he can sustain his rule of Syria," he said.
Of course, there's still the question of who would follow Assad. Clapper could not promise the successor regime would be any better, one more indication of the uncertainty characterizing the threat landscape these days.