The new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which concluded that Iran suspended its nuclear weapons program four years ago, was shocking.
The fact that it was published at all was astounding.
In a rational world, the consensus findings of the 16 agencies that make up the nation's intelligence community would put an end to the bellicose grumbling and threats of war against Iran by the Bush administration and various neo-conservative cheerleaders.
That this NIE, albeit in very truncated summary form, ever saw the light of day says much about an intelligence community that's determined to get it right this time and to withstand the unrelenting pressure from Vice President Dick Cheney and his minions to come up with an estimate that matches his dark conclusion that only American air strikes can stop Iran's ayatollahs from building nuclear weapons.
No matter. President George W. Bush, who's said that a nuclear-armed Iran could cause World War III, was quick to say that nothing in the new NIE has changed his view that, "Iran was dangerous, Iran is dangerous and Iran will be dangerous . ..."
Although the new NIE completely contradicts one published in 2005, the president said it wouldn't prompt him to remove pre-emptive military strikes against Iran from his options list or convince him to ease his efforts to isolate Iran diplomatically and impose harsher international sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
Bush told the press that he'd learned of the new intelligence findings only last week, but other officials said he was briefed last August on the fact that the agencies had new information on Iran’s nuclear programs that required a rewrite of the 2005 NIE. We're asked to believe that Bush, rattling saber in hand, never asked what that new information was, where it came from or how reliable it was.
Bush has talked tough about Iran, but it was Vice President Dick Cheney, as usual, who's been beating the war drum for swift military action to destroy the underground facilities associated with Iran’s ongoing enrichment of uranium — which Iran maintains is purely for civilian use but which it's doing in defiance of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
In an earlier day and time, Cheney had enough clout to bully intelligence analysts into revising their estimates about Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program and weapons of mass destruction. He also was able to shove bogus claims about non-existent mobile chemical and biological weapons labs into then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s speech to the United Nations before the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Back in those heady days before "Mission Accomplished", it would have been inconceivable that an NIE could have been published that ran counter to Cheney’s beliefs and opinions.
How the mighty are fallen. Cheney’s chief hatchet man in those and other efforts to promote war, Scooter Libby, is gone, convicted of lying to federal investigators. His chief ally in his war against the truth, then Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, is gone, too. The neoconservatives who promoted the foolish crusade to remake the Middle East have seen their influence fall as fast as it rose.
But in the case at hand, Iran, the old joke that “just because you're paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you” may well apply. Just because the Iranians appear to have halted their nuclear weapons research in 2003 doesn’t mean they can’t resume it when it suits them. The centrifuges are still whirring away in deep underground facilities, enriching uranium that can be used to fuel nuclear power plants or be further enriched and used to make nuclear weapons.
Iran indeed bears watching, and the international effort to pressure Tehran into suspending enrichment and accepting IAEA inspection and oversight of its nuclear program should continue and be further energized.
It hasn't gone unnoticed that the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq and the ensuing five years of war and occupation there and in Afghanistan strengthened, not weakened, Iran's militant Shiite Muslim rulers.
That, in turn, has rattled the nerves of America's few Arab allies in that part of the world — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, the Persian Gulf emirates — as well as our principle ally, Israel.
It will be difficult, even for Bush, to claim that Iraq is an American victory, or a Bush victory, if it leaves the ayatollahs in the catbird seat in that oil-rich region, but Bush's and Cheney's crude threats to attack Iran are more likely to make things worse than they are to dislodge the mullahs from their perch.
Those two should have learned by now that speaking softly comes before you use the big stick.