News / Middle East

Pentagon: Iran Continues Nuclear Weapons Push, Supports Extremists

David Dyar

A new U.S. Defense Department report on Iran's military power says the country continues to pursue nuclear weapons and ballistic missile capabilities, and to sponsor violent groups in several parts of the world.  But the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency says Iran is not likely to launch a direct attack on the United States because that might result in the fall of the current regime.

The first formal Defense Department report on Iran's military capabilities says the Tehran government's main goal is its own survival, and determines the leadership has therefore adopted a primarily defensive military strategy, including high-technology defenses aimed at detecting and stopping a sophisticated attack.  

But the report also says Iran continues to work toward developing a nuclear weapon and increasingly long range missiles.  It notes that Iran has run into some problems at its main uranium enrichment facility, but says a new facility is expected to come on line next year.  The report does not estimate when Iran might be able to produce a nuclear weapon, but U.S. officials, including the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lieutenant General Ronald Burgess, say it could be soon.

"The general consensus -- not knowing, again, the exact number of centrifuges that we actually have visibility into -- is we're talking one year," he said.

But General Burgess also says U.S. intelligence agencies do not know whether Iran's leaders have formally made the decision to actually build such a weapon and he says because the regime is interested in its own survival is unlikely to initiate a conflict intentionally or launche a preemptive attack.

The report says Iran is also working hard on its ballistic missile capability, and claims to have a new missile with a range of 2,000 kilometers.  It says Iran has also made improvements in the accuracy and payload capacity of its missiles, and estimates the country could have a missile capable of reaching the United States by 2015 if it gets some foreign help.  The report says Iran already has short range missiles that can hit neighboring countries, and U.S. forces in the region, with conventional warheads.  And it says Iran has improved the defenses that protect its missile launch sites.

The report also says the Iranian government pursues a policy of subversion through extremist groups abroad, particularly in the Middle East.  But the report says Iranian agencies have built "operational capabilities" elsewhere, too, in recent years, even as far away as Venezuela.  It does not provide details.

But before U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Latin America last week, a senior defense official speaking on condition of anonymity said although Iran has "deepened" its relations with a few countries in the region, its influence is not widespread.   The official cited deepening Iranian relations mainly with Venezuela and Bolivia, but also to some extent with Ecuador, Nicaragua and Brazil.

In testimony last week before a U.S. Senate committee, Lieutenant General Burgess described Iran's activities abroad this way. "One principal tool employed by Iran is the active sponsorship of terrorist and paramilitary groups to serve as a strategic deterrent and intimidate and pressure other nations. This includes the delivery of lethal aid to select Iraqi Shia militants in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan," he said.

General Burgess said such activities are handled by Iran's elite, semi-independent Quds Force.  There has long been uncertainty about how much of the Force's activities are directed by the government.  But General Burgess said the Force does not operate entirely on its own.

"I think what I would say in this setting is that as I laid out in the testimony, the Quds Force, the IRGC folks, that there is some -- some control that is directed from on high. How much and within what bounds that is put on them is not something I'm prepared to go into detail on.  So when we say not a rogue force, they are not truly totally independent operators. There is some cognizance on high," he said.

The Defense Department report says the Quds Force continues to support insurgents in Iraq, and to a lesser extent in Afghanistan, even as the Iranian government pursues state-to-state relations with the U.S.-supported governments in those countries.

On Wednesday, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said Iran is subverting the Iraqi and Afghan governments even as it builds official relations with them. "Clearly Iran is, when it comes to Iraq and Afghanistan, they continue to be duplicitous -- at some levels wishing to engage with the government, at others trying to undermine their authority, their sovereignty," he said.

But Morrell says the Iran power report, released this week, is mainly a compilation of information and analysis already made public by the Defense Department and other U.S. government agencies. "I frankly don't think that anything that was shared in the report, and I read it last night, would strike anyone in this building as new, and therefore would require an adjustment in the approach we have been taking within the building or frankly the inter-agency, the government as a whole, would be taking, toward Iran."

The report is the first of its kind and was required by the Congress.  

The Defense Department does a similar annual report about China.

The report puts Iran's annual defense spending at the equivalent of just $9.6 billion as of last year, less than two per cent of U.S. defense spending.  But the report says that does not include the activities of agencies such as the Quds Force.

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