Sanctions and diplomacy still have a chance to persuade Iran to give up its nuclear program as Tehran's leaders have shown a rational "cost-benefit approach" in their calculations, US intelligence chiefs said Tuesday.
The top intelligence officials suggested that military conflict with Iran was not inevitable despite soaring tensions with Tehran and a war of nerves over the Strait of Hormuz.
"We judge Iran's nuclear decisionmaking is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence Tehran," James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, told senators.
"Iranian leaders undoubtedly consider Iran's security, prestige, and influence, as well as the international political and security environment, when making decisions about its nuclear program," Clapper told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
He said economic sanctions were taking a toll and described a worsening rift between the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The overriding goal of Iran's leaders remained "regime survival" and it was too early to say how economic strains triggered by a wave of tougher sanctions would affect their decisions, CIA Director David Petraeus told the same hearing.
With a run on the Iranian currency, inflationary pressures and unemployment, the sanctions were "biting" more now than ever before, Petraeus said.
"I think what we have to see now is how does that 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?" he said.
The comments by spy agency leaders echoed President Barack Obama's assessment in his State of the Union address last week, when he said "a peaceful resolution" remains possible with Iran.
During the hearing, the head of the intelligence committee, Senator Dianne Feinstein, revealed that Israel's spy chief Tamir Pardo had visited to Washington last week, amid speculation over a possible Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.
Signup to our newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Twitter!
Such trips are usually secret but Feinstein mentioned Pardo's visit at the televised hearing as she discussed how Israel views Iran's nuclear ambitions.
When asked about the likelihood of pre-emptive Israeli military action, Clapper replied that he would prefer to answer in a closed-door session but said sanctions might force Tehran to change course.
"Our hope is that the sanctions... will have the effect of inducing a change in Iranian policy toward their apparent pursuit of a nuclear capability," he said.
"Obviously, this is a very sensitive issue right now."
After a damning report in November by the UN International Atomic Energy Agency, the United States and the European Union have ratcheted up sanctions on Iran. The measures focus on Iran's vital oil industry and central bank in a bid to force Tehran to abandon uranium enrichment work, which the West suspects masks a drive to build an atomic bomb.
Iran insists its nuclear project is peaceful and has threatened retaliation over the fresh sanctions, including possibly disrupting shipping through the strategic Strait of Hormuz.
The head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lieutenant General Ronald Burgess, told senators Iran had "the capability, we assess, to temporarily close" the channel but did not elaborate.
The hearing confirmed US intelligence services have not changed their view since an assessment last year. The 16 spy agencies believe Iran's leaders are divided over whether to build nuclear weapons and have yet to take a decision to press ahead.
Asked what would be a signal that Iran had decided to construct a bomb, Clapper said producing highly enriched weapons-grade uranium would be one clear sign.
In his written remarks, Clapper also said an alleged plot last year to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States showed Iran might be more willing now to carry out attacks on US soil.
But Iran's actions would be shaped by perceptions of US power as well as the consequences of the exposure of the alleged plot, he said.
Clapper said while the punitive economic measures were squeezing Iran, the "economic difficulties probably will not jeopardize the regime, absent a sudden and sustained fall in oil prices or a sudden domestic crisis that disrupts oil exports."