Iran's leaders "may be changing their mind" about pressing ahead with their nuclear program in the teeth of international sanctions, the U.S. intelligence chief told senators Thursday.
Tehran has offered to resume stalled talks with the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany, according to a letter from its chief nuclear negotiator reported by Agence France-Presse.
News of the letter came a day after Iranian leaders proclaimed new progress in creating nuclear fuel rods and threatened to cut oil exports to six European nations in retaliation for new European Union sanctions.
Calling news of the Iranian offer "interesting," Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said it might be evidence that international sanctions are having an effect on Tehran's decision-making about its nuclear program.
"We'll see whether, you know, the Iranians may be changing their mind," Mr. Clapper said during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on global threats to U.S. security.
But lawmakers and scholars expressed doubts about a change of heart by the Islamic republic.
"I'm skeptical about putting any significance in that," said Sen. Carl M. Levin, Michigan Democrat and committee chairman.
"The Iranians want to seem amenable to talks while continuing their nuclear program," said Barbara Slavin, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. "I don't think it's an indication yet that they are changing their mind."
For Iran to re-enter the talks, she said, the United States and its partners would "at least have to make them a new face-saving offer. There is no sign that President Obama is willing to do so, especially in an election year."
Meanwhile, authorities in Thailand on Thursday said three Iranians who were arrested after accidentally setting off explosives in a Bangkok house Wednesday had been plotting to attack Israeli diplomats in an assault similar to those in India and Georgia this week.
Israeli officials have accused Iran of the bomb plots, but the Islamic republic has denied any involvement.
"What is interesting is that in the past [Iranians have] been able to get Arab terror groups [like Hezbollah] to act as proxies" for such attacks, Ms. Slavin said. "Now they're getting involved directly. It's a sign of desperation."
Israel, the United States and the European Union have long suspected that Iran's nuclear program is geared toward building an atomic bomb, and the U.S. and EU have implemented sanctions against Iran's Central Bank and oil industry in an effort to persuade Tehran to scrap its program.
Iran repeatedly has said its nuclear program is aimed at only civilian uses but has not cooperated with international inspectors. Israeli officials, meanwhile, reportedly are mulling a pre-emptive military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.
In its letter to the U.N., Iran said the other parties in any talks would have to "respect Iran's right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy."
In his Senate testimony Thursday, Mr.. Clapper said U.S. intelligence analysts believe Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei personally would decide whether Tehran goes ahead with building a nuclear weapon and would do so rationally.
"We believe the decision would be made by the supreme leader himself, and he would base that on a cost-benefit analysis," Mr. Clapper said, adding that Iran does not want "a nuclear weapon at any price."
"There are certain things that they have not yet done" in order to move forward with weaponization, he added, saying he could discuss the "decision indicators" in closed session.
He echoed earlier public assessments in saying Iran would need at least a year to be able to produce a nuclear device, and then one or two additional years to put it in a warhead that could be delivered as a weapon.
This would give U.S.-led sanctions time to influence Tehran since the international boycotts are imposing significant costs on the country, Mr. Clapper said.
"The impacts that the sanctions are already having on the Iranian economy, the devaluation of their currency - the thought is that that could change their policy," he said.
However, Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a hawkish Washington think tank, said: "Designing sanctions to make Khamenei relent in his 30-year quest for a nuclear weapon is a delusion."
Advocating using sanctions to help bring regime change in Tehran, Mr. Dubowitz said Iran's clerical leaders see a potential nuclear weapon as "a guarantee of regime survival."
"There is no evidence to date that the supreme leader employs a risk-reward calculus in making decisions about the nuclear program," he said.
Mr. Clapper also blamed Iran, more bluntly than other U.S. officials have previously, for the recent series of bungled and foiled terrorist attacks against Israeli diplomats.
He singled out Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, an Islamic extremist militia under the sole control of the clerics.
Iran's religious leaders "through their proxies - the IRGC particularly - decided, made a conscious judgment, to reach out against primarily Israeli and then secondarily against U.S. interests," he said.
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