STATEMENT FOR THE RECORD
WORLDWIDE THREAT ASSESSMENT OF THE US INTELLIGENCE COMMUNITY
Daniel R. Coats, Director of National Intelligence
Senate Select Committee on Intelligence
January 29, 2019
Issues as diverse as Iran’s adversarial behavior, deepening turbulence in Afghanistan, and the rise of nationalism in Europe all will stoke tensions.
Our adversaries and strategic competitors will increasingly use cyber capabilities—including cyber espionage, attack, and influence—to seek political, economic, and military advantage over the United States and its allies and partners. China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea increasingly use cyber operations to threaten both minds and machines in an expanding number of ways—to steal information, to influence our citizens, or to disrupt critical infrastructure.
Iran continues to present a cyber espionage and attack threat. Iran uses increasingly sophisticated cyber techniques to conduct espionage; it is also attempting to deploy cyber attack capabilities that would enable attacks against critical infrastructure in the United States and allied countries. Tehran also uses social media platforms to target US and allied audiences, an issue discussed in the Online Influence Operations and Election Interference section of this report.
– Iranian cyber actors are targeting US Government officials, government organizations, and companies to gain intelligence and position themselves for future cyber operations.
– Iran has been preparing for cyber attacks against the United States and our allies. It is capable of causing localized, temporary disruptive effects—such as disrupting a large company’s corporate networks for days to weeks—similar to its data deletion attacks against dozens of Saudi governmental and private-sector networks in late 2016 and early 2017.
ONLINE INFLUENCE OPERATIONS AND ELECTION INTERFERENCE
Our adversaries and strategic competitors probably already are looking to the 2020 US elections as an opportunity to advance their interests. More broadly, US adversaries and strategic competitors almost certainly will use online influence operations to try to weaken democratic institutions, undermine US alliances and partnerships, and shape policy outcomes in the United States and elsewhere.
– Iran, which has used social media campaigns to target audiences in both the United States and allied nations with messages aligned with Iranian interests, will continue to use online influence operations to try to advance its interests.
– Adversaries and strategic competitors probably will attempt to use deep fakes or similar machine-learning technologies to create convincing—but false—image, audio, and video files to augment influence campaigns directed against the United States and our allies and partners.
WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION AND PROLIFERATION
We expect the overall threat from weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to continue to grow during 2019, and we note in particular the threat posed by chemical warfare (CW) following the most significant and sustained use of chemical weapons in decades.
We continue to assess that Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities we judge necessary to produce a nuclear device. However, Iranian officials have publicly threatened to reverse some of Iran’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) commitments—and resume nuclear activities that the JCPOA limits—if Iran does not gain the tangible trade and investment benefits it expected from the deal.
– In June 2018, Iranian officials started preparations, allowable under the JCPOA, to expand their capability to manufacture advanced centrifuges.
– Also in June 2018, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) announced its intent to resume producing natural uranium hexafluoride (UF6) and prepare the necessary infrastructure to expand its enrichment capacity within the limits of the JCPOA.
– Iran continues to work with other JCPOA participants—China, the European Union, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom—to find ways to salvage economic benefits from it. Iran’s continued implementation of the JCPOA has extended the amount of time Iran would need to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon from a few months to about one year.
Iran’s ballistic missile programs, which include the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the region, continue to pose a threat to countries across the Middle East. Iran’s work on a space launch vehicle (SLV)—including on its Simorgh—shortens the timeline to an ICBM because SLVs and ICBMs use similar technologies.
The United States determined in 2018 that Iran is in noncompliance with its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), and we remain concerned that Iran is developing agents intended to incapacitate for offensive purposes and did not declare all of its traditional CW agent capabilities when it ratified the CWC.
Iran almost certainly will continue to develop and maintain terrorist capabilities as an option to deter or retaliate against its perceived adversaries.
– In mid-2018, Belgium and Germany foiled a probable Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) plot to set off an explosive device at an Iranian opposition group gathering in Paris—an event that included prominent European and US attendees.
During the next year, Hizballah most likely will continue to develop its terrorist capabilities, which the group views as a valuable tool and one it can maintain with plausible deniability.
– Hizballah most likely maintains the capability to execute a range of attack options against US interests worldwide.
The United States faces a complex global foreign intelligence threat environment in 2019. Russia and China will continue to be the leading state intelligence threats to US interests, based on their services’ capabilities, intent, and broad operational scopes. Other states also pose persistent threats, notably Iran and Cuba. Geopolitical, societal, and technological changes will increase opportunities for foreign intelligence services and other entities—such as terrorists, criminals, and cyber actors—to collect on US activities and information to the detriment of US interests.
Iran and Cuba
We assess that Iran and Cuba’s intelligence services will continue to target the United States, which they see as a primary threat. Iran continues to unjustly detain US citizens and has not been forthcoming about the case of former FBI agent Robert Levinson (USPER).
ECONOMICS AND ENERGY
Production challenges in some oil-exporting countries—notably Libya, Nigeria, and Venezuela—as well as export losses from Iran, would the limit benefits of increased oil prices to those countries. Saudi Arabia, other Persian Gulf oil exporters, and Russia could enjoy increased revenues, but they might also backtrack on the economic reforms they began during periods of lower oil prices
MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA
Political turmoil, economic fragility, and civil and proxy wars are likely to characterize the Middle East and North Africa in the coming year, as the region undergoes a realignment of the balance of regional power, wealth and resource management, and the relationships among governments, nonstate political groups, and wider populations.
Iran’s regional ambitions and improved military capabilities almost certainly will threaten US interests in the coming year, driven by Tehran’s perception of increasing US, Saudi, and Israeli hostility, as well as continuing border insecurity, and the influence of hardliners.
Iran’s Objectives in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen
We assess that Iran will attempt to translate battlefield gains in Iraq and Syria into long-term political, security, social, and economic influence while continuing to press Saudi Arabia and the UAE by supporting the Huthis in Yemen.
In Iraq, Iran-supported Popular Mobilization Committee-affiliated Shia militias remain the primary threat to US personnel, and we expect that threat to increase as the threat ISIS poses to the militias recedes, Iraqi Government formation concludes, some Iran-backed groups call for the United States to withdraw, and tension between Iran and the United States grows. We continue to watch for signs that the regime might direct its proxies and partners in Iraq to attack US interests.
Iran’s efforts to consolidate its influence in Syria and arm Hizballah have prompted Israeli airstrikes as recently as January 2019 against Iranian positions within Syria and underscore our growing concern about the long-term trajectory of Iranian influence in the region and the risk that conflict will escalate.
– Iran’s retaliatory missile and UAV strikes on ISIS targets in Syria following the attack on an Iranian military parade in Ahvaz in September were most likely intended to send a message to potential adversaries, showing Tehran’s resolve to retaliate when attacked and demonstrating Iran’s improving military capabilities and ability to project force.
– Iran continues to pursue permanent military bases and economic deals in Syria and probably wants to maintain a network of Shia foreign fighters there despite Israeli attacks on Iranian positions in Syria. We assess that Iran seeks to avoid a major armed conflict with Israel. However, Israeli strikes that result in Iranian casualties increase the likelihood of Iranian conventional retaliation against Israel, judging from Syrian-based Iranian forces’ firing of rockets into the Golan Heights in May 2018 following an Israeli attack the previous month on Iranians at Tiyas Airbase in Syria.
In Yemen, Iran’s support to the Huthis, including supplying ballistic missiles, risks escalating the conflict and poses a serious threat to US partners and interests in the region. Iran continues to provide support that enables Huthi attacks against shipping near the Bab el Mandeb Strait and land-based targets deep inside Saudi Arabia and the UAE, using ballistic missiles and UAVs.
Regime hardliners will be more emboldened to challenge rival centrists by undermining their domestic reform efforts and pushing a more confrontational posture toward the United States and its allies. Centrist President Hasan Ruhani has garnered praise from hardliners with his more hostile posture toward Washington but will still struggle to address ongoing popular discontent.
Nationwide protests, mostly focused on economic grievances, have continued to draw attention to the need for major economic reforms and unmet expectations for most Iranians. We expect more unrest in the months ahead, although the protests are likely to remain uncoordinated and lacking central leadership or broad support from major ethnic and political groups. We assess that Tehran is prepared to take more aggressive security measures in response to renewed unrest while preferring to use nonlethal force.
– Ruhani’s ability to reform the economy remains limited, given pervasive corruption, a weak banking sector, and a business climate that discourages foreign investment and trade.
Military Modernization and Behavior
Iran will continue to develop military capabilities that threaten US forces and US allies in the region. It also may increase harassment of US and allied warships and merchant vessels in the Persian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz, and Gulf of Oman.
– Iran continues to develop, improve, and field a range of military capabilities that enable it to target US and allied military assets in the region and disrupt traffic through the Strait of Hormuz. These systems include ballistic missiles, unmanned explosive boats, naval mines, submarines and advanced torpedoes, armed and attack UAVs, antiship and land-attack cruise missiles, antiship ballistic missiles, and air defenses. Iran has the largest ballistic missile force in the Middle East and can strike targets as far as 2,000 kilometers from Iran’s borders. Russia’s delivery of the SA-20c SAM system in 2016 provided Iran with its most advanced long-range air defense system. Iran is also domestically producing medium-range SAM systems and developing a long-range SAM.
– In September 2018, Iran struck Kurdish groups in Iraq and ISIS in Syria with ballistic missiles in response to attacks inside Iran, demonstrating the increasing precision of Iran’s missiles, as well as Iran’s ability to use UAVs in conjunction with ballistic missiles.
– We assess that unprofessional interactions conducted by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Navy against US ships in the Persian Gulf, which have been less frequent during the past year, could resume should Iran seek to project an image of strength in response to US pressure. Most IRGC interactions with US ships are professional, but in recent years the IRGC Navy has challenged US ships in the Persian Gulf and flown UAVs close to US aircraft carriers during flight operations. Moreover, Iranian leaders since July have threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz in response to US sanctions targeting Iranian oil exports.
As the Syrian regime consolidates control, the country is likely to experience continued violence. We expect the regime to focus on taking control of the remaining rebel-held territory and reestablishing control of eastern Syria, consolidating gains, rebuilding regime-loyal areas, and increasing its diplomatic ties through 2019 while seeking to avoid conflicts with Israel and Turkey. Russia and Iran probably will attempt to further entrench themselves in Syria.
– The regime’s momentum, combined with continued support from Russia and Iran, almost certainly has given Syrian President Bashar al-Asad little incentive to make anything more than token concessions to the opposition or to adhere to UN resolutions on constitutional changes that Asad perceives would hurt his regime.
– Damage to the Syrian economy and its infrastructure has reached almost $400 billion, according to UN estimates, and reconstruction could take at least a decade to complete. The effects of the Syrian civil war will continue to be felt by its neighbors, with approximately 5.6 million Syrian refugees registered in neighboring countries as of October 2018. Russia and Iran will try to secure rights to postwar contracts to rebuild Syria’s battered infrastructure and industry in exchange for sustained military and economic support.