(CNSNews.com) – The U.S. intelligence community believes Iran views the nuclear deal as a way to get relief from sanctions while retaining nuclear capabilities and the agencies do not know whether it will eventually decide to build a nuclear weapon, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.
In written and verbal testimony on the intelligence community’s 2016 Worldwide Threat Assessment, Clapper repeated an assessment from the 2015 report – that Tehran “does not face any insurmountable technical barriers to producing a nuclear weapon, making Iran’s political will the central issue.”
He said Iran’s adherence to the nuclear agreement reached last summer would depend on its pursuit of its strategic goals – which include enhancing its security and regional influence.
“Iran probably views the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action as a means to remove sanctions while preserving nuclear capabilities,” Clapper told the committee.
“Iran’s perception of how the JCPOA helps it achieve its overall strategic goals will dictate the level of its adherence to the agreement over time.”
Clapper had positive things to say about the deal, saying that it increases the time that the Iranians would need to enrich enough highly-enriched uranium to build a nuclear weapon, “from a few months to about a year.”
Asked about Iran’s compliance with the deal to date, Clapper said it had met its requirements under the JCPOA on “implementation day” last month.
Still, the intelligence community was in a “distrust and verify mode,” he said.
“There are half a dozen or so ambiguities – maybe others, but certainly half a dozen or so ambiguities in the agreement that we have identified, and we’re going to be very vigilant about Iranian compliance.”
‘A deliberate message of defiance’
Aside from JCPOA compliance, lawmakers also questioned Clapper and the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Marine Corps Lieut. Gen. Vincent Stewart, about Iran’s behavior in other areas, including its ballistic missile development and support for terrorism.
Under the deal, Iran is receiving around $100 billion in unfrozen assets, and it will reap much more as a result of sanctions relief over time. How it spends that money has long been a concern to lawmakers opposed to the agreement.
Stewart told the panel he expected to see Iran in the next several years use some of the money it obtains from sanctions relief to enhance its conventional military capabilities, pointing out that Iran has already agreed to buy the S300 surface-to-air missile system from Russia.
Stewart said Russia has deployed “tremendous” military capabilities in Syria – where Russia and Iran are helping the Assad regime – and Iran may likely want to buy some of that weaponry in the years ahead.
“There’s lots of weapons technology being displayed, and I suspect within the next two to five years we can expect Iran to invest in some of the weapons technology that’s being displayed in the Syrian battlefield by the Russians today,” he said.
Clapper said that the two ballistic missile launches conducted by Iran since the JCPOA was agreed last July – on Oct. 10 and Nov. 21 – were “a deliberate message of defiance.”
The intelligence community expected the Iranians to “continue with their aggressive programs,” he said, noting that Iran has conducted around 140 missile launches since the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution in 2010 prohibiting such activity.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) highlighted a sentence from Clapper’s written testimony – “we judge that Tehran would choose ballistic missiles as its preferred method of delivering nuclear weapons, if it builds them.” (The same sentence appeared in the 2015 report.)
“That is obviously why you would build a ballistic missile – if you choose to build a nuclear weapon,” she said.
“Well, they have hundreds of them, that threaten the Mideast,” Clapper said.
“Iran’s ballistic missiles are inherently capable of delivering WMD, and Tehran already has the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East,” he said in his written testimony.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) took a dig at Democrats who had voted in favor of the JCPOA last year but were voicing concern about how Iran may use the money it obtains from the deal.
“It’s reassuring to hear so many members of this committee who voted to give the world’s worst state sponsor of terrorism tens of billions of dollars express their grave concerns about what Iran might do with that money,” he said.
“I wish we had heard more of those concerns during the debate before the vote on it.”
Of the 12 Democrats on the committee, all but one, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, voted in favor of the JCPOA last September. Manchin was one of just four Senate Democrats to oppose the deal. The others were Sens. Chuck Schumer of New York, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Ben Cardin of Maryland.