Iran worries US officials beyond its nuclear plans

The consensus view of US intelligence agencies is that Iran is a power on the rise in the Middle East, eager to expand its military might and committed to the development of nuclear weapons.

If it forges ahead with its current program Tehran could produce an atomic bomb by the early or middle years of the next decade, said the new Director of National Intelligence, retired Vice Adm. Michael McConnell, at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday on future threats to the United States.

"Iran is growing in its ability to project military power with the goal of dominating the Gulf region," said Admiral McConnell.

This warning comes at a time when the US has charged that Iranian forces are sending deadly weapons to Shiite militias inside Iraq. In addition, US officials have cited the potential threat of long-range Iranian missiles as a reason why Europe might need US-made missile defenses.

Critics of the White House say that the US may be misusing intelligence information to create a pretext for conflict with Iran, in a manner similar to the run-up to the Iraq war.

Intelligence officials appearing before the Senate Armed Services panel said that they were calling Iranian intentions as they saw them.

McConnell said that as part of the learning process for his new job he recently reviewed intelligence about the position of Iran's hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and was disappointed with what he found.

"He remains popular," McConnell said. "He has staffed his cabinet and [positions] around him with hard-liners. The economy is strong because of oil revenues."

Iran's ballistic missiles currently can reach only as far as Israel, said Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Iranian scientists might perfect longer range models by 2015, he said.

"We are seeing them develop some space launch capability," said Mr. Maples.

In addition, it is "probable" that Iran's leadership knows that the Iranian Qods Force, an elite unit of the Revolutionary Guards, is shipping sophisticated anti-armor explosives to Iraqi Shiite militias, according to US intelligence.

"There is no direct link," said McConnell. "I am comfortable saying it is 'probable'."

Meanwhile, on Tuesday the White House said that it would be willing to attend a regional conference in Iraq next month that could include Iran and Syria.

The conference would be aimed at ways to stabilize Iraq. The administration has ruled out any direct talks with Tehran unless it suspends its uranium-enrichment program.

But if Iraq puts together a multilateral meeting, "[and] if we were invited to participate, we certainly would," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.

At the Senate Armed Services threat briefing, intelligence officials also presented a mixed view about the prospects and implementation of the president's plan to push for more security in Baghdad.

President Bush presented the effort as one in which Iraqi troops would be in the lead, with US forces serving in a supporting capacity.

To this point, Iraqi units are not fully at the point of the spear in Baghdad, but "are in the process of taking the lead," McConnell said.

Iraqi brigades moved into Baghdad have had anywhere from 43 to 82 percent of their approved manpower, he said. "It is a work in progress."

Military success will not occur without progress toward political reconciliation, said intelligence officials. Yet that remains a difficult challenge.

The Shiites are not confident of their position in the majority, and remain worried about a Sunni resurgence, said the officials. The Sunnis, for their part, are not yet willing to admit they are no longer in charge.

"The question is, will leadership emerge and be capable of taking the country to the next level," McConnell said.

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