The report grants, "It is difficult to specify what such a combination might be." But the point is this: The chiefs of the U.S. intelligence community are recommending a mix of pressure and diplomacy—sticks and carrots—as the best way to keep the A-bomb out of Iranian hands.
A little context is necessary to understand this report's full significance.
For the past two years, various factions in the Bush administration have engaged in internecine skirmishes over how to deal with the anticipation of an Iranian atom bomb. Cheney and his associates are the prominent hawks, in favor of stepping up the pressure and, if the time comes, attacking Iran's nuclear facilities, perhaps pre-emptively. President Bush has sometimes seemed to take this side, at least rhetorically, as when he said recently that failure to keep Iran from gaining the ability to build A-bombs could trigger "World War III."
Opposing this faction is … well, nearly every other agency and high-ranking official that deals with national-security policy. And ever since Robert Gates replaced Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense one year ago, the pro-diplomacy wing has grown increasingly outspoken.
In his confirmation hearings, Gates was asked by Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., whether he favored attacking Iran. Gates replied that he did not, adding, "We have seen in Iraq that when war is unleashed, it becomes unpredictable."
Earlier this month, in an interview with the Financial Times, Adm. William Fallon, commander of U.S. Central Command, said, when asked about an attack on Iran, "Another war is just not where we want to go."
A week later, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, when asked the same question, replied, "I would never take the military option off the table," but noted that this "doesn't mean it would be used," adding, "Diplomacy is very important."
Finally, Maj. Gen. James Simmons, an Army deputy corps commander in Iraq, said, during a press briefing in Baghdad, that the Iranians seem to be keeping to their "initiatives and their commitments" to stop the flow of IEDs into Iraq.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has pushed for diplomacy over confrontation, when it comes to Iran, ever since she took the job at the start of Bush's second term.
And now, with today's NIE, we see the entire U.S. intelligence community not only, in effect, coming down on the side of the doves but concluding that the threat animating the hawks doesn't even exist.