Fred Kaplan was online on Dec. 6 to chat with readers about this article. Read the transcript.
Nearly everyone now agrees that Monday's National Intelligence Estimate takes war with Iran off the table. Even those who lament the fact, or who question the NIE's findings, realize that the case for airstrikes has just gone up in smoke.
But the question remains: What should President George W. Bush do now? At Tuesday's press conference, he tried to act as if nothing had changed, as if the proclamation by all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies—that Iran "halted its nuclear weapons program" four years ago—confirms, rather than undermines, his position that Iran was, is, and shall be a huge threat.
Bush's credibility is further diminished by his remark on Tuesday that he'd been briefed on the NIE only last week. This may be literally correct (the final draft, after all, wasn't written until last week), but it's wildly misleading. We now know that Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, told him about the impending report in August, when analysts were reaching their conclusions.
This is no minor discrepancy. It was in October that Bush publicly warned of "World War III" if Iran continued its work toward a nuclear weapon—two months after he learned from McConnell that Iran had stopped such work long ago.
Bush said at Tuesday's press conference that McConnell had mentioned the report back in August but that he had not revealed its contents.
As Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., rightly noted in a conference call with reporters shortly afterward, this claim is "not believable." Here's a president who is "fixated on Iran," who is briefed on intelligence every morning—and when his intelligence chief tells him that a new NIE on Iran is nearly finished, he doesn't ask what it's going to say?
Credibility is one of many things that Bush has long lost, but on this issue in particular, he needs to earn some back right away—because he's right about some of the things that he warned about on Tuesday, and he has to give foreign leaders a reason to believe him.
It's worth noting, for instance, that, according to the NIE, the intelligence agencies conclude "with high confidence" that Iran halted its nuclear-weapons program in the fall of 2003. But they state only "with moderate confidence" that Iran has not since resumed the program.
The agencies note that Iran probably hasn't enriched enough uranium or reprocessed enough plutonium to build a bomb; that it "still faces significant technical problems" in trying to do so; and that, as a result of these problems, it may not be able to produce enough nuclear materials—much less pack them into an A-bomb—until after the year 2015.
However, the intelligence agencies caution, also "with high confidence," that Iran "has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons if it decides to do so." And they admit that they "do not know" whether Iran "intends to develop nuclear weapons" at some point down the road.