We're not going to bomb Iran.
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.]
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Slate's home page by Alfred/SIPA/AP.