The director of the Defense Intelligence Agency told lawmakers Tuesday that Iran will purchase new, advanced Russian weapons systems after receiving large-scale sanctions relief with the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal and will utilize these military capabilities in the Syrian civil war in the near future.
Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart made this statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee alongside Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, both of whom were on Capitol Hill to testify about the newly-release annual "Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community," which details the current array of threats posed to American interests and national security.
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During the congressional hearing, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.) asked Stewart to elaborate on an earlier comment he made that Iran "is unlikely in the short term to increase its military capability" with the estimated $50 billion to $150 billion it received in sanctions relief.
"It is unlikely immediately because I think the focus will be on internal economic gains," Stewart said. "However, after 35 years of sanctions, Iran has developed … the most capable missile force in the region. It has extended its lethality, its accuracy. It has all the ranges covered. It can reach all of its regional targets."
Stewart added that in the long term he "fully expects" Iran " will invest some of the money into improving the rest of their military capabilities."
Blumenthal asked how many years Stewart means by "long-term" and what the U.S. response should be to Iran's growing asymmetrical and conventional military capabilities.
"The long term might not be as long as five years," Stewart said in response. "We've already seen an agreement between Iran and Russia for the S-300 air defense system. We're seeing Russia demonstrate tremendous capabilities as they've done their out-of-area deployment into Syria."
The general described how "there's lots of weapons technology being displayed, and I suspect within the next two to five years, we can expect Iran to invest in some of those weapons technology that's being displayed on the Syrian battlefield by the Russians today."
Iran has spent billions of dollars and deployed its own troops, Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon, and recruited Shiite fighters from around the Middle East to support embattled Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and ensure he remains in power.
Syria has been embroiled in a brutal civil war since 2011 when Assad fired on peaceful protesters to crush dissent, triggering a large uprising that has so far killed 250,000 people and created a refugee crisis with millions of people being forced from their homes.
The Syrian conflict has become the center of gravity in the Middle East, with regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Turkey aiding the opposition to Assad, creating a proxy war between Iran's axis of influence and Sunni Arab states, as well as the Turks.
Assad's forces were losing ground and the regime appeared on the verge of collapsing when Russia intervened militarily in September of 2015 to help the Syrian leader. Since then, Iran and Russia have formed an alliance of sorts and helped the Syrian regime retake territory and push back rebel forces, which include moderate, Western-backed entities as well as Sunni jihadist groups.
The United States has helped support some rebel forces, and President Obama has called for Assad to leave power since 2011. In recent months since the Russian intervention, however, Washington has softened its stance on Assad, saying he may have a political future in Syria within a transitional or national unity government of some kind.
As Iran and Russia are changing facts on the ground to give it leverage in ongoing diplomatic efforts led by Washington to end the civil war, the U.S. has had difficulty convincing the Syrian opposition to agree to sit down at negotiations with the Syrian regime.
Some analysts fear that the fighting may only get worse as Iran, Russia, and their allies gain more influence in the Middle East while the U.S. is perceived to be disengaging from the region.
The intelligence community's annual threat assessment expressed concern that both Iran and Russia pose significant threats to the United States, as does the ramifications from the ongoing Syrian conflict, which includes the strengthening of the Islamic State jihadist group.
Beyond security cooperation, Russian companies more broadly are flocking to Iran to increase economic ties, indicating a relationship that extends beyond defense issues.