The President Grapples With a Big Surprise

Iran does not have a program to create nuclear warheads.

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President Bush takes questions from reporters at the White House pressroom December 4.

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If a face could sum up a foreign policy dilemma, one had only to look at President Bush's pained, peevish, and exasperated expressions during his press conference last week to appreciate the vexing problem of Iran and nuclear weapons. It was a piece of unscripted political theater that put a puzzling event on public display. For all the practice he's had maintaining composure, the president can't always keep it inside. Poker players call it a tell, and standing at the White House podium, the president was telling a lot. He appeared before the world as a man still trying to digest a very big surprise that had just been dropped in his lap. What did the surprise mean? Was it good news or bad? Bush worked through the demons of doubt in real time.

Iran, in the new consensus view of America's intelligence agencies, does not have an ongoing program to create a nuclear warhead. That finding only turned on its head the last two years of Bush's strenuous efforts to get the world to agree that Iran was a menace that needed to be stopped. A "blow" to Bush's fragile diplomatic coalition, the Washington Post called it in a front-page analysis. Other critics read more nefarious implications by recalling another period that soured Bush's visage: when it became clear Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction. Supporters attributed the president's annoyance to a treacherous intelligence community that had sneaked the report onto his chair like a whoopee cushion. The spooks' intent, this theory went, was to shape policy by easing the Iran threat. Had the lame-duck president lost control of the bureaucracy? That might make a man pallid under the TV lights. But by the end of the session, he seemed on firmer ground as he tried to marshal the facts in his favor. The bottom line, he concluded, was that the intel agencies agreed that Iran had been working on a weapon, that it was still trying to produce the materials, and that it could restart a bomb program at any time. "This report is not an 'OK, everybody needs to relax and quit' report," the president implored. The composure returned as if nothing had changed.