WASHINGTON — Iran's top officials now may be more willing to sponsor attacks in the United States, the top U.S. intelligence official said Tuesday in a warning that reflected rising tensions over Tehran's suspected nuclear weapons program.
Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper also said that while al Qaida remained a danger, the deaths of Osama bin Laden and other key figures had seriously degraded the core terrorist organization's ability to mount major strikes.
Testifying before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on the findings of an annual report on threats facing the United States, Clapper said that continued "robust" U.S. counter-terrorism efforts could further reduce the Pakistan-based group's status to one of "largely symbolic importance" and fragment the global jihadist movement that bin Laden had inspired.
Iran and the danger posed by al Qaida after bin Laden's death in a U.S. special forces raid May 2 in Pakistan dominated the questioning of Clapper and other U.S. intelligence officials at the hearing on the 2012 Worldwide Threat Assessment.
Terrorism, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, attacks on U.S. computer systems _ especially by China and Russia _ and the cybertheft of government and corporate secrets constitute "the immediate forefront of our security concerns," Clapper told the panel.
He also said that the turmoil ignited by last year's Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East was likely to be "protracted," with the rising bloodshed in Syria potentially growing into a regional crisis, he said.
"The Arab world is in a period of turmoil and change that will challenge the ability of the United States to influence events in the Middle East," Clapper warned. But Iran's efforts to extend its regional power _ which Saudi Arabia and others oppose _ will ensure continued Arab security cooperation with Washington, he said.
An alleged Iranian plot last year to kill Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States shows that some Iranian officials _ probably including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei _ now may be "more willing" to launch attacks in the United States, he said, without elaboration. Iran has denied mounting a plot.
"We are also concerned about Iranian plotting against U.S. or allied interests overseas," Clapper said. He added that the costs Iran bears for the alleged plot to kill the Saudi envoy and its leaders' perceptions of U.S. threats to Iran probably will determine "Iran's willingness to sponsor future attacks against the United States."
The annual threat assessment comes amid serious tensions over what the United States, its European allies and Israel charge is a covert Iranian program to develop nuclear weapons. The United States and Israel have declined to rule out military action if Tehran refuses to heed U.N. demands to suspend its uranium enrichment program.
Iran says that its program, which it kept hidden from U.N. inspections for 18 years, is to produce civilian reactor fuel. The U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency, however, said in November that Iran may be secretly pursuing some aspects of an effort to build a missile-borne nuclear warhead.
Repeating a finding from last year, Clapper said U.S. intelligence analysts thought "Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons," but that they didn't think that Tehran had decided to do so.
At the same time, he indicated that Iran has advanced its ability to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon.
Last year, Clapper said Iran could make sufficient quantities of highly enriched uranium for a weapon "in the next few years." The phrase "next few years" was dropped from this year's report _ apparently reflecting Iran's announcement Jan. 9 that it's begun enriching uranium at a second site, built underground near the city of Qom.
The U.S. intelligence officials said there was no sign that international sanctions had altered Iran's course. But it's possible that Tehran could reconsider its refusal to suspend its nuclear program as new U.S. and European measures aimed at choking its revenues from oil sales begin doing serious damage, including bank runs and a currency devaluation, they said.
"The sanctions have been biting much, much more," said CIA Director David Petraeus. "I think what we have to see now is how does that play out and what is the level of popular discontent inside Iran."
On al Qaida, Clapper said bin Laden's killing and the deaths and capture of key operatives since 2008 "lead us to assess that core al Qaida's ability to perform a variety of functions _ including preserving leadership and conducting external operations _ has weakened significantly."
The finding contrasted with last year's report, which warned that the Pakistan-based group continued to pursue sophisticated foreign plots.
The new report in part reflects the group's losses from an intensified campaign of attacks by CIA missile-firing drones in Pakistan's tribal area, something that President Barack Obama acknowledged Monday for the first time and defended in an online video chat with users of Google's social network.
Those operations have been curtailed substantially because of a serious downturn in U.S. relations with Pakistan that led to a Pakistani decision late last year to end the CIA's use of an air base from which it launched the pilotless aircraft. The drones now are launched from bases in Afghanistan.
Clapper noted that with continued "robust counter-terrorism efforts" and cooperation by other countries, "there is a better-than-even chance" that the global jihadist movement will become fragmented.
"With fragmentation, core al Qaida will likely be of largely symbolic importance to the movement," he said. "Regional groups, and to a lesser extent small cells and individuals, will drive the global jihad agenda both within the United States and abroad."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY