Does Iran pose a direct threat to the U.S. homeland? For years, more than a few policymakers in Washington have taken quiet comfort in the notion that, no matter how vexing a challenge Iran and its nuclear ambitions might be, the Islamic republic remained a distant adversary — one not yet capable of putting America at risk.
That fiction, however, is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain. Take the intelligence community's latest assessment of worldwide threats, unveiled publicly before Congress in late January. That estimate, delivered by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, provides the clearest indication to date that Iran poses a direct threat to the U.S. on at least three levels.
• Latin America. Recent years have seen significant Iranian attention to, and activity in, the countries south of the U.S. border. Iran's vibrant strategic partnership with the regime of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela has captured the lion's share of media attention, but Tehran has established growing beachheads elsewhere in the region, including in Bolivia, Ecuador and throughout the region's loosely regulated free trade areas.
The reasons for Iran's interest are practical. Replete with anti-American sentiment and poor governance, the countries of Latin America are logical allies for an Iranian regime seeking to skirt the political and economic isolation of mounting international sanctions. The same characteristics also provide fertile soil for Iran's radical, revisionist ideology and a growing Iranian asymmetrical presence in the Western Hemisphere.
The potentially devastating results of this intrusion were made clear last October, when U.S. law enforcement agencies foiled an Iranian plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia's envoy to the U.S. in a posh Washington eatery. If realized, the plot would have killed scores of civilians in the most significant terrorist incident on American soil since 9/11.
Underpinning this activism is what amounts to a seismic shift in Iranian strategic calculations. As Clapper outlined, "Iranian officials — probably including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — have changed their calculus and are now willing to conduct an attack in the United States."
• Cyberwarfare. Over the past two years, Iran's nuclear complex has weathered at least two major asymmetrical attacks from foreign sources in the form of the Stuxnet cyberworm and its successor, Duqu. In response, Iran's leadership is making major investments in cyberwarfare. Over the past year, it has announced the establishment of a dedicated cyber command under the country's Ministry of Information and Communications Technology and launched what is rumored to be a $1 billion plan to enhance its cyber-defense and cyber-offense capabilities, with significant results.
"Iran's intelligence operations against the United States, including cyber capabilities, have dramatically increased in recent years in depth and complexity," Clapper warned lawmakers.
More and more, there are signs that these burgeoning capabilities could be aimed at the U.S. Iran's "chatter is increasing, the targeting more explicit, and more publicly disseminated," one infrastructure security specialist has noted.
Iran, in other words, increasingly has come to view cyberwarfare as a potential tactic in its unfolding confrontation with the West, and may use it against the U.S. in a future conflict.
• Ballistic missiles. When the Obama administration unveiled its overhaul of U.S. missile defense strategy in September 2009, it staked its new "phased adaptive approach" on the judgment that Iran was a long way from acquiring an intercontinental ballistic missile capability. Therefore, priority should be given to defending U.S. allies overseas, rather than the American homeland.
Increasingly, however, that reading no longer rings true.
"Iran already has the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East, and it is expanding the scale, reach, and sophistication of its ballistic missile forces, many of which are inherently capable of carrying a nuclear payload," the latest intelligence assessment holds.
If anything, that's an understatement. As Uzi Rubin, one of the world's foremost experts on ballistic missiles, recently told an audience at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, "Iran is turning the corner, or soon will" in its development of intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Iran, according to Rubin, today boasts an exceedingly robust, well-staffed and well-resourced ballistic missile program and is making major headway toward an ICBM capability through long-range missile tests, a broad engineering base and significant work on missile survivability and range.
Needless to say, these advances make Iran a truly international threat.
Since the start of the year, U.S. officials have redoubled their efforts to derail Iran's march toward the bomb, applying economic pressure to Iran's central bank and the regime's capacity to conduct electronic commerce. So far, however, they have paid comparatively little attention to the more immediate challenge posed by Iran's expanding capability to hold the U.S. homeland at risk.
They should, for it is by now apparent that the danger posed by Iran to American security is both clear and increasingly present.