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The nation's intelligence agencies delivered their annual assessment of major security threats today to lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Among the highlights, Iran is moving toward a nuclear capability but its intentions are unclear; al-Qaida is seriously weakened but still dangerous; and in Afghanistan, the Taliban remained a determined adversary, but it may make sense to negotiate with them.
NPR's Tom Gjelten listened in and has this report.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Al-Qaida consistently ranks near the top in the annual list of security threats; so it is again. But this year, the director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, was able to list some accomplishments, beginning with a big triumph: tracking down and killing Osama bin Laden.
JAMES CLAPPER: With Osama bin Laden's death, the global jihadist movement lost its most iconic and inspirational leader. 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.
GJELTEN: But the big concern this year is Iran. This past year saw the alleged Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador right here in Washington. The intelligence agencies 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.
Director Clapper said there is more to unfold here.
CLAPPER: Consistent with their outreach elsewhere, they're trying as well to penetrate and engage in this hemisphere.
GJELTEN: As for possible nuclear plans, the spy agencies told the Senate Intelligence Committee, as they have before, that Iran is keeping open the option to develop a nuclear weapon. Director Clapper said, for example, they are developing the capabilities Iran would need to produce a nuclear bomb.
CLAPPER: 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.
GJELTEN: 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.
Here's David Petraeus, the CIA director.
DR. DAVID PETRAEUS: Sanctions have been biting much, much more, literally, in recent weeks than they have until this time. So, I think what we have to see now is how that does play out. What is the level of popular discontent inside Iran? Does that influence the strategic decision making of the Supreme Leader and the regime?
GJELTEN: On Afghanistan, the intelligence agencies gave a guarded assessment. The Taliban have been set back in some places, but only 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.
CLAPPER: 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.
GJELTEN: Clapper found little good news to report. In Syria, where the regime of Bashar al-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.
CLAPPER: The opposition continues to be fragmented, but I do not see how he can sustain his rule of Syria.
GJELTEN: 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.
Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.
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