BAD NEWS FOR 'RESET'
U.S. intelligence agencies threw cold water on the President Obama's thus-far-unsuccessful effort to "reset" relations with Russia by making concessions to Moscow.
The prepared testimony of Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence predicted that advancing U.S.-Russian relations "will prove increasingly challenging" under the expected elevation again of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to the presidency.
"Putin has acknowledged that the reset with Washington has yielded benefits for Russia, suggesting he sees value in preserving a cooperative relationship," Mr. Clapper said.
"Nevertheless, Putin's instinctive distrust of U.S. intentions and his transactional approach towards relations probably will make him more likely to confront Washington over policy differences."
Three years of efforts to improve ties have produced few, if any, positive results.
The administration caved in to Russian demands not to deploy long-range anti-missile interceptors in Eastern Europe and offered several concessions to cooperate on missile defenses.
Moscow pocketed the concessions and continues to demand legally binding limits on U.S. and NATO defenses.
Russia also is "not likely" to help U.S. and international efforts on Iran and Syria, Mr. Clapper said, noting that Moscow remains suspicious of U.S. support for independent former Soviet states.
The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty also was one-sided. Data released by the State Department shows Moscow already was below treaty arms levels, making the heralded agreement a unilateral U.S. disarmament pact.
Meanwhile, Russian armed forces are being modernized with more agile, high-tech capabilities.
"In 2010, [Russian President Dmitri Medvedev] and Putin approved a 10-year procurement plan to replace Soviet-era hardware and bolster deterrence with a balanced set of modern conventional, asymmetric, and nuclear capabilities," Mr. Clapper stated.
SYRIAN TIPPING POINT?
U.S. intelligence agencies this week detected increasing signs the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad is close to collapsing amid continuing defections by troops and instability.
The most recent indicator is of the declining security situation in areas surrounding the capital of Damascus. On Monday, fighting between the rebel Free Syrian Army of defectors and the Syrian forces was reported to be within 8 miles of the downtown area.
Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper said in a Senate hearing Tuesday that the fall of the Assad regime is "a question of time."
Mr. Clapper also said Iran and Hezbollah are trying to bolster the regime in Syria.
CIA Director David H. Petraeus said during the hearing: "Clearly the loss of Syria as a logistics platform, a line of communication into Lebanon to support Hezbollah, would be a substantial setback for Iran in its efforts to use Hezbollah as a proxy, and that is indeed why the Revolutionary Guards Corps' Quds Force is so engaged in trying to prop up Bashar al-Assad right now."
U.S. officials said Free Syrian Army fighters are seeking to force their way into Damascus with some 300 new defectors from regime forces who have joined the rebels.
According to the officials, one rebel reported that a Syrian brigadier general recently defected with 300 soldiers outside Damascus, and an opposition Facebook page called "The Syrian Revolution" said Monday that an entire rocket brigade had defected and "threatened to attack the presidential palace and the General Intelligence Department in Damascus."
The regime is seeking to counter the rebels by rushing military reinforcements to an area near Damascus called Rif Dimasq, including with tanks and Republican Guard units.
The Egyptian newspaper Al-Misri al-Yawm reported Sunday, quoting informed Syrian sources, that Syrian army defectors blocked an attempt to sneak Mr. Assad's wife, Asma, and their children; his mother, Anisah Makhluf; cousin Rami Makhluf and Mrs. Makhluf's sons out of Syria through Damascus Airport. The report said the attempt to flee came amid fears of a military coup.
IRAN NUCLEAR RED LINE
James R. Clapper, director of national intelligence, made clear this week that the U.S. intelligence community is continuing to hold fast to its questionable 2007 national intelligence estimate that said Iran had halted work on its nuclear program years earlier.
Appearing before an annual threat briefing for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Mr. Clapper said current assessments are that Iran has not made a decision yet to build nuclear weapons.
"Well, how will we decide that they have integrated all of these components in a decision to weaponize, at which point? What will be our red line?" asked Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, Maine Republican.
"Well, certainly a key indicator will be, without going into sensitive areas here, but a clear indicator would be enrichment of uranium to a 90 percent level would be a pretty good indicator of their seriousness," Mr. Clapper said.
Iran also would need to do other things that he declined to specify.
CIA Director David H. Petraeus, appearing with Mr. Clapper at the annual threat briefing, said there already are troubling signs about Iran's nuclear weapons intentions.
"The various components: enrichment, weaponization, delivery - and what we think would be evident if there is a decision to enrich beyond the 20 percent that they are currently enriching to, the weapons grade would be very significant and, I think, a telltale indicator," Mr. Petraeus said.
U.S. intelligence agencies have a poor record of assessing foreign nuclear programs. For North Korea's two nuclear weapons tests, intelligence agencies were unsure about the tests when they occurred.
The International Atomic Energy Agency in November released new details of Iran's work on nuclear weapons, including development of a nuclear warhead for its Shahab-3 missile and preparations for a nuclear test.
Much of the work was done after 2003, the point when U.S. intelligence agencies said Iran had halted all arms work.
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