If there was ever a possibility that President George W. Bush would drop bombs on Iran, the chances have now shrunk to nearly zero.
In one of the most dramatic National Intelligence Estimates ever, the 16 agencies of the U.S. intelligence community concluded today "with high confidence" that Iran "halted its nuclear weapons" four years ago, in the fall of 2003.
The NIE, which was released this afternoon, also judges "with moderate confidence" that Iran won't be "technically capable" of producing enough materials for an atom bomb—much less the bomb itself—until 2010-15 or possibly later.
The report also concedes that Tehran's decision to halt its nuclear-weapons program "suggests it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005."
It was in 2005 that the intelligence agencies released their first, more alarming NIE, which concluded that Iran was determined to develop nuclear weapons despite international pressure.
The new report—which incorporates intelligence information as recent as Oct. 31, 2007—now finds evidence to the contrary.
President Bush and the administration's hawkish faction, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, can take some solace from the new intelligence estimate. For instance, the NIE states, again "with high confidence," that until the fall of 2003, the Iranians were developing nuclear weapons. It also notes that they are continuing civilian work "related to uranium conversion and enrichment." Most significant, perhaps, it concludes that the Iranians halted their weapons program "primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure resulting from exposure of Iran's previously undeclared nuclear work."
But one implication of this last assessment is that Iran's leaders are not so hermetic—that, as the NIE puts it, "Iran may be more vulnerable to influence on the issues than we judged previously." The Bush administration's campaign of pressure—the smart sanctions that it imposed and rallied other nations to join—appears to have had an effect. By the same token, inducements might spur further progress.
The NIE is strikingly explicit on this point:
Our assessment that Iran halted the program in 2003 primarily in response to international pressure indicates Tehran's decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs. This, in turn, suggests that some combination of threats of intensified international scrutiny and pressure, along with opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways, might—if perceived by Iran's leaders as credible—prompt Tehran to extend the current halt to its nuclear weapons program. [Italics added.]
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.
There is another caveat here. At his confirmation hearings last year, Gates pledged to be independent and to give the president his unvarnished advice. "But," he emphasized, "there is still only one president of the United States, and he will make the final decision."
In other words (and many people make a mistake in neglecting this fact), Bush really is "the decider." Then again, in previous disputes within the administration, especially over decisions on Iraq, the dissenters have caved or been outmaneuvered. This time, on Iran, the leaders of the State Department, the Defense Department, the military command, and now the intelligence community are on public record as downplaying the wisdom of war—and, with today's NIE, disputing the rationale for even considering war.
Skeptics of war have rarely been so legitimized. Vice President Cheney has never been so isolated. If Bush were to order an attack under these circumstances, he would risk a major eruption in the chain of command, even a constitutional crisis, among many other crises. It seems extremely unlikely that even he would do that.