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A surprising new view of Iran’s nuclear ambitions

Iran halted its pursuit of nuclear weapons four years ago, U.S. intelligence agencies concluded this week in a stunning report that reverses previous Bush administration assessments. The National Intelligence Estimate, compiled from assessments by 16 U.S.

What happenedIran halted its pursuit of nuclear weapons four years ago, U.S. intelligence agencies concluded this week in a stunning report that reverses previous Bush administration assessments. The National Intelligence Estimate, compiled from assessments by 16 U.S. spy agencies, said it could report with “high confidence” that Iran did once have a covert weapons program, but that international pressure caused it to abandon the effort in 2003. Iran is still installing centrifuges to enrich uranium for what it insists is a peaceful program to generate nuclear power, and the NIE warns that the Islamic regime “is keeping the option open to develop nuclear weapons.” If Iran were to restart a weapons program, the report says, it could build a nuclear bomb sometime between 2010 and 2015.

The conclusions—based partly on intercepted conversations between top Iranian officials—directly contradict recent statements by the Bush administration, which has been warning that Iran had an active nuclear weapons program. Just six weeks ago, Bush warned that a nuclear-armed Iran could lead to “World War III.” Some of his top advisors had been briefed on the new NIE findings well before that speech. But Bush said he himself had not heard the new conclusions until last week, and he said it did not change his opinion of the Iranian threat. “I view this report as a warning signal that they had the program,” Bush said. “They could restart it. I still feel strongly that Iran is a danger.”

What the editorials saidThere goes the last of the Bush administration’s credibility, said The Boston Globe. The White House has known for months that the intelligence community was sharply revising its judgment on Iran, yet the president “nevertheless persisted in evoking an apocalyptic danger of a third world war.” Bush says that the director of national intelligence, John McConnell, told him only that revisions were in the works, not what those revisions said. Evidently it didn’t occur to Bush to ask. “If this is really what happened,” Bush has set “a new standard for presidential incuriosity.”

Still, Bush is right to be cautious about Iran, said The New York Times. It may be good news that Iran has no active weapons program, but it is very bad news that this dangerous regime did, in fact, have one until four years ago. According to the NIE, Iran stopped its nuclear work “only after it got caught and was threatened with international punishment.” It is still trying to master uranium enrichment—the first step toward building a nuclear weapon.

What the columnists saidThe truth is, we can’t know what Iran’s capabilities are, said Frank Gaffney Jr. in National Review Online. The NIE report is the product of guesswork by career foreign-service workers who hate Bush. In reality, only a tiny circle within the Islamic regime possesses “certain knowledge” of the current state of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. America’s dysfunctional intelligence community is substituting “wishful thinking” for a clear-eyed appraisal of our enemies—just as it did prior to 9/11.

The debate over a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities is now over, said Fred Kaplan in Slate.com. Vice President Dick Cheney and a small faction of hawks have argued that Iran’s fanatical mullahs can be stopped only by military action, but the NIE report explicitly says that the mullahs are not crazy. They’re weighing “costs and benefits,” and can be deterred by diplomatic measures, such as sanctions.

Forget sanctions, said Robert Kagan in The Washington Post. The Europeans only agreed to mild sanctions in the first place because they were afraid the alternative was “American military action.” Now that that option is off the table, they won’t support a serious international effort to isolate Iran. That leaves the Bush administration with only one means to “seize the initiative”—negotiate directly with Tehran to reduce hostilities. We can’t wait for the next president to open talks in 2009, “at which point, if the NIE is right, Iran could be moving into the final stages of developing a bomb.”

What next?The Bush administration said it would press ahead with a proposed third U.N. sanctions resolution against Iran. But Russia and China, both veto-wielding members of the Security Council, indicated that they may oppose the resolution. “We all start from the presumption that now things have changed,” said Wang Guangya, China’s U.N. ambassador.

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