A Little Less of a Menace

An intelligence surprise shifts the debate over Tehran's aims.

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President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calls the report a victory for Iran.

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The language may have been typically dry and cautious, but this intelligence assessment was a policy blockbuster: U.S. spy agencies collectively judge "with high confidence" that Iran halted its secret nuclear weapons program by the fall of 2003.

The national intelligence estimate reversed a judgment of two years ago and undercut the sense of an urgent, growing Iranian nuclear peril that President Bush in mid-October said had to be eliminated to avoid a "World War III." In a snap, the report broadly complicated the task of persuading Russia, China, and other skeptical countries to back a much tougher round of United Nations sanctions and other financial pressures on Iran. And it mostly stilled months of hawkish chatter for military action—certainly for the rest of the Bush presidency. "The military option is not just off the table; it's out the window," argued Vali Nasr, an Iran specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations and Tufts University.

Concerns. A senior European diplomat agreed, while arguing that concerted diplomatic pressure on Iran to suspend nuclear-fuel work had to continue. The U.S. reversal also caused further damage to the country's credibility on weapons of mass destruction, the diplomat added, asking, "So is this intelligence right?"

Bush and his advisers contend that their approach has been validated because the nie shows that Tehran had indeed been secretly striving for a bomb. Bush insisted that "the NIE doesn't do anything to change my opinion about the danger Iran poses to the world."

The document concluded that Iran primarily abandoned its weapons development in response to international pressure and that its actions "are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon." Iran continues its efforts to master the enrichment of uranium—only for civilian nuclear power, Iran says—though the NIE judged that Iran could be technically capable of making enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb between 2010 and 2015, if it chose to do so.

Israel sees a shorter timeline and is unswayed by the new assessment. To the degree that Washington's military option is now untenable, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's vow that Israel "will not tolerate" a nuclear-armed Iran becomes the new pressure point. "If the Americans don't deal with it," asserts John Pike, director of the think tank GlobalSecurity.org, "the Israelis will."