WASHINGTON -- Dennis Blair, the top U.S. intelligence official, has issued a new report that says Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea pose the greatest challenges to the United States' national interests.
Iran and North Korea's inclusion won't surprise anyone, but Russia and China are somewhat unexpected.
The National Intelligence Strategy report -- compiled every four years -- says Moscow and Washington share the goal of securing their nuclear weapons to keep them out of the wrong hands. But it also says that Russia "may continue to seek avenues for reasserting power and influence in ways that complicate U.S. interests."
As for China, which trades regularly with the United States and owns billions of its national debt, the report says Beijing competes for the same resources the United States needs, and is in the process of rapidly modernizing its military.
Anthony Cordesman, a former intelligence analyst for the U.S. State and Defense departments, says overestimating these challenges would be a mistake, but Washington has to keep its eye on both countries.
Cordesman, who is now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says China is a significant military power both in terms of nuclear and conventional weapons. Add to that its hunger for the resources its economy needs to grow, he says, and you've got a competitor to be reckoned with.
"As China becomes one of the world's largest economies, there are real challenges as to where you get scarce minerals, increased energy exports, and other supplies," Cordesman says. "So taking China seriously and looking at it as a potential risk is something that really has to be done. It doesn't make it into an enemy, it doesn't make it into a threat, but you can't emerge as this big a power without becoming a subject of concern."
Russia's 'Potential Risk'
Russia, too, presents problems for the United States, Cordesman says. It's a former empire that has yet to stabilize its economy and to establish a stable democratic system.
It's also an enormous nuclear power and looms over Central and Eastern Europe, as well as Central Asia, in ways that make many uncomfortable.
He says the United States cannot risk not closely monitoring its former Cold War foe.
"When you look at what is still the world's second-largest nuclear power and second-largest military power and a key exporter of military technology and a country with vast international influence, to not look at it as a potential risk would be unrealistic and a failure on the part of the intelligence community," Cordesman says.
As with China, however, Cordesman says that's no reason to look upon Russia as hostile.
Cordesman also agrees with the National Intelligence Strategy report's conclusion that Iran is a challenge to U.S. policy not only in the Middle East but also in Afghanistan, because of its nuclear and missile programs and its assistance to militants the United States considers terrorists.
"In all these areas, Iran is a critical power, and it is one the United States has to see as at least a potential adversary for the very good reason that Iran has constantly declared that it is hostile to the United States and to the allies of the United States," he says.
A U.S. representative will probably attend talks next month with Iran, along with the four other permanent members of the UN Security Council -- Britain, China, France, and Russia -- and Germany.
Among the report's other findings is that the United States is now less vulnerable to Al-Qaeda and allied militant groups because it understands them better than ever.
But it stresses that these groups, particularly Al-Qaeda, are still trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction to use against the West.