As late as 2005 U.S. intelligence agencies had “high confidence” that Iran was building a bomb, but in a stunning reversal the latest National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) ordered by Congress in 2006 concludes that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. The Israelis and Iranian dissidents, in particular, are not buying it – and there’s good reason for skepticism.

The Atlantic ticks off several examples of cognitive dissonance in the report’s conclusions, a compilation of the assessments of 16 U.S. spy agencies:

While Iran did suspend uranium enrichment for a time, it reversed this move in early 2006. Natanz went live later that year, and just last week, Iran started operating 3,000 of the estimated 60,000 centrifuges at Natanz, making good on its promise of industrial-scale uranium enrichment. Since the alleged halt, Iran has continued to develop a ballistic missile program capable of delivering nuclear warheads and consistently obfuscated UN inspections. Nowhere in the NIE is there discussion as to why Iran would resume this enrichment and continue to thwart the inspectors if it were giving in to international pressure and halting its program. …

If Iran were really succumbing to international pressure in halting its weapons program, why would it not do so in a way that would benefit the country? If it were to take the measures of ceasing enrichment and adopting transparency, the numerous sanctions and restrictions against it would be lifted. A key moment would have been nine months ago, when the UN Security Council enacted tough new sanctions against the country for failing to cooperate with the IAEA. But Iran made no concessions. So what has it gained in all this by the logic of U.S. intelligence? The NIE essentially claims that Iran has created for itself a lose-lose situation, where it has stopped its nuclear weapons program without reaping any of the benefits. Why would Iran have any interest in such a scenario? It is a question the NIE summary fails to address, and one that should keep us wondering about Iran’s true intentions and capabilities.

A scant six weeks ago, President Bush warned that a nuclear-armed Iran could set off World War III. Why the 180-degree turnabout? Maybe the reality (resignation?) finally set in that the U.S. cannot simultaneously fight wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran. As Robert Baer, a former CIA field officer in the Middle East, speculates, with the situation in Iraq improving and Lebanon settling into some semblance of political stability, the Bush administration concluded that striking Iran now is counterproductive:

With Iranian-backed Shi’a groups behaving themselves, things are looking up in Iraq. In Lebanon, the anti-Syrian coalition and pro-Syrian coalition, which includes Iran’s surrogate Hizballah, reportedly have settled on a compromise candidate, the army commander General Michel Suleiman. Bombing Iran now would upset the fragile balance in these two countries. Not to mention that Hizballah has threatened to shell Israel if we as much as touch a hair on Iran’s head.

Then there are the Gulf Arabs. For the last year and a half, ever since the Bush Administration started to hint that it might hit Iran, they have been sending emissaries to Tehran to assure the Iranians they’re not going to help the United States. But in private, the Gulf Arabs have been reminding Washington that Iran is a rabid dog: Don’t even think about kicking it, the Arabs tell us. If you have to do something, shoot it dead. Which is something the United States can’t do.

Jerusalem Post columnist Calev Ben-David fears that it’s the Bush administration that’s being duplicitous (which Israel was OK with when the victims of the administration’s duplicity were Armenian-Americans who wanted Congress to pass a symbolic resolution acknowledging that Ottoman Turkey committed genocide; the shoe’s on the other foot now) :

[H]aving claimed proudly to have forged at Annapolis a coalition of Arab states in opposition to Iran and its radical Islamist proxies, Bush and Rice might well be thinking that it might be handy at this stage to have a reason to implicitly back down from the military option that those “moderate” Muslim allies so ardently oppose. That’s certainly what the NIE report conveniently provides, even if that won’t be publicly acknowledged by the administration.

What does the NIE analysis really tells us about Iranian nuclear intentions and capabilities? That’s anybody’s guess. But from a Jerusalem viewpoint, the message it sends from Washington seems to be: If you’re thinking of a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, Israel – you’re on your own.

So if the U.S. has no intentions of bombing Iran back to the Stone Age, what can we do to keep it on the nuclear straight and narrow? The Washington Post’s Robert Kagan makes the case that now is as good a time as any to initiate talks with Tehran:

A military strike against suspected Iranian nuclear facilities was always fraught with risk. For the Bush administration, that option is now gone. …

Bringing Europeans together in support of serious sanctions was difficult before the NIE. Now it is impossible.

With its policy tools broken, the Bush administration can sit around isolated for the next year. Or it can seize the initiative, and do the next administration a favor, by opening direct talks with Tehran.

Negotiating will appear at first to be a sign of weakness. The Iranians could use talks to exploit fissures between the United States and its allies, and within the U.S. political system. …

This is as good a time as any. … America remains powerful in the world and in the Middle East. The success of the surge policy in Iraq means that the United States may be establishing a sustainable position in the region – a far cry from a year ago, when it seemed about to be driven out. If Iraq is on the road to recovery, this shifts the balance against Iran, which was already isolated. …

The next administration, especially if it is Democratic, will probably want to try to talk to Tehran. But it couldn’t begin talks before the summer of 2009, at which point, if the NIE is right, Iran could be moving into the final stages of developing a bomb. Better to get negotiations started so that by the time the next administration settles in, it will be able to assess the progress, or lack thereof, after a year of talks. If it decides it must take strong action, it will have an easier time showing that all other options were exhausted.

Speaking of the next administration, the NIE report not only sent shockwaves through the international community, but will also shake up the talking points of several candidates who have taken a hawkish stance against Iran and force them to dial it back a bit. For his part, Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) wasted no time slamming Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) for voting in favor of designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization, which many Dems regard as being the first step in the march to war. If Hillary has the most to lose politically from the NIE report, Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) may have the most to gain. As New York Times columnist Frank Rich points out, “Mr. Obama’s much-derided readiness to talk promptly and directly to the leaders of Iran and Syria, for instance, was a clear alternative, agree with it or not, to Mrs. Clinton’s same-old Foggy Bottom platitudes on the subject.”

Note: The Stiletto writes about politics and other stuff at The Stiletto Blog.

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